It’s been two years since the BBC-Sky rivalry in the world of Formula One broadcasting commenced. James Coghlan evaluates the two different approaches and gives his verdict as to which is superior
2008 was a good year for British F1 fans. Not only did it yield a home-grown champion in the form of Lewis Hamilton, but it also marked the end of ITV’s somewhat underwhelming TV coverage of the sport.
Following the conclusion of a five-year deal, the BBC obtained exclusive rights to broadcast F1 in the UK from 2009 onwards. The presenting team spearheaded by Jake Humphrey moved far beyond the standards set by ITV, introducing a perfect blend of professionalism and banter that captivated the viewing audience and redefined their expectations of how the sport should be covered.
However, thanks to a freeze in the licence fee, the BBC has been forced to share broadcast rights with Sky from 2012 onwards, only showing half of the races live while Sky established an entire channel to covering the sport with a unprecedented level of commitment and depth. This has meant UK fans have been able to choose between two very different ways of viewing F1 for the last two years. But, the question is: which one delivers the best experience?
In its first year, the BBC began broadcasting live video coverage of F1 on the internet, also making use of interactive TV by offering onboard camera views, the post-race ‘Forum’ and rolling highlights on its ‘Red Button’ facility. Since then, the their offerings have gone even further, introducing neat services like the brilliant ‘Driver Tracker’ and F1 coverage on the BBC Sport smartphone app.
However, these technological endeavours pale into comparison to the host of features offered by the Sky Sports F1 channel, which offers everything that the BBC does and more; its ‘Sky Race Control’ service, for instance, has even more feeds than the BBC equivalent and is also available on multiple platforms. Sky’s endless promotions of its “incredible 5.1 audio” and “stunning high definition” live up to their billing, too. Indeed, if Sky goes ahead with its proposals to broadcast races in 3D, it almost won’t be worth going to see Grands Prix live in person.
The presenting team is an area in which the BBC hits back, however. Their current line-up of pundits works extremely well, as each one is able to offer the viewer a different perspective of events; with ex-driver David Coulthard, former team owner Eddie Jordan and his brilliant technical director Gary Anderson providing detailed and role-specific analysis of any development that comes their way. Ben Edwards’ commentary style is also highly effective, combining sharp observations with a level of excitement that makes watching a bunch of cars going round a track a fantastically entertaining experience.
Suzi Perry also deserves praise for having successfully filled the shoes of BT Sport-bound Jake Humphrey in 2013. Thanks to her vast experience in presenting other motorsport, most notably MotoGP for much of the 2000s, Perry is able to deliver a level of technical insight that seemed to be beyond her predecessor, but couched in the same sort of light-hearted, jocular manner that made the BBC’s coverage such a big hit in the first place.
Sky’s presenters are a highly professional bunch, led by former rugby presenter Simon Lazenby, who has managed to ease relatively comfortably into the world of F1 after two seasons presenting the sport. Despite being prone to the odd controversial clanger, he appears more confident and composed than his BBC counterpart Perry, which helps to offset his limited technical knowledge. Ex-drivers-turned-pundits Damon Hill and Johnny Herbert more than make up for this, however, always on hand to chip in with expert insight when Lazenby runs dry.
Where Sky’s analysis really excels is in its use of the ‘Skypad’, which provides a highly digestible breakdown of all the most complex and exciting parts of the on-track action. In the hands of another expert analyst in the form of Anthony Davidson, the facility adds a significant amount of value to post-race discussion and gives the viewer a much clearer understanding of the race’s most important developments. Whilst the BBC’s post-race analysis is good, it could use something like the Skypad to help direct the pundits.
The race commentary is an area where Sky lags behind. That’s not to say that the combination of David Croft and BBC defector Martin Brundle is bad by any means, but it is a little underwhelming compared to the brilliantly berserk commentary provided by Edwards and Coulthard. This highlights a wider problem with Sky’s presenting team as a whole: they’re a bit boring.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in their extensive 90-minute race build-up, in which they attempt to replicate the sort of fun-filled adventures typical of the BBC’s coverage. This would be fine if the presenters could muster the sort of entertainment value of the tremendous trio of Perry, Jordan and Coulthard – but they can’t. The problem is that there is no tangible chemistry between Sky’s presenting team at all, making any attempt on their part to make the programme entertaining somewhat awkward to watch.
That said, Sky is perfect for the viewer who wants to indulge in extensive analysis tailored to the hardcore race fan, and are willing to pay for the privilege. The BBC’s more light-hearted approach however appeals to a much wider audience, and still provides an excellent standard of coverage and technological features for what remains a taxpayer-funded free-to-air service. For that reason, in spite of all of Sky’s efforts so far, the BBC remains the superior way to watch for the substantial majority of F1 fans.bookmark me