A New Type of F1 Coverage

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Sky’s investment in Formula 1 has opened up plenty of viewing options to subscribers, but it comes at a cost to the broadcaster — and to us

So what does everyone think of Sky’s Formula 1 coverage so far? The best there has ever been? Overkill? Or maybe you were quite happy with the BBC’s highlights package for the Australian Grand Prix?

Whatever your thoughts, you can’t deny that Sky is throwing all its resources at F1. On a recent trip to its offices in Osterley, London to talk to the production team behind the F1 channel and Sky Sports News it became clear just how much effort is going into the coverage.

There are 80 staff and 18 tonnes of equipment sent to each Grand Prix, a new studio at HQ has been created just for F1 and there is a portable studio that will be shipped to 16 of the 20 races. And that’s just the start.

A week after going to Osterley I was at the launch of the BBC’s F1 coverage and it seems the BBC is fully aware of the might of Sky. “We get all the press releases [about Sky’s plans] as well,” BBC F1 presenter Jake Humphrey told me. “All the stuff about portable studios and things, and we just can’t compete with that. The trick for us is to take the model that we’ve got and make it as good as possible.”

In 2010 Sky surpassed the 10 million subscribers mark and if you take a (very low) estimate of 12 million subscribers now that means it has a monthly income of £360 million. That’s taking an average monthly subscription of £30, which again is probably conservative. It also doesn’t count any commercial revenue, or the fee that Sky takes for other channels to be on it. So it’s hardly surprising that Sky can afford to plan such comprehensive coverage.

“It’s been really frustrating that we haven’t been able to do more F1 in the past because of the rights problem,” admitted Andy Cairns, the head of Sky Sports News HD. “And the more we did of the pre-season build-up, the more I wondered why more people don’t cover it. It makes very good TV.

“Yes, we’ll have a week’s build-up to each Grand Prix, but we do that for boxing and in F1 there are a lot more than two people involved. We’ll be looking at what each race means to the local town, catching the atmosphere as the trucks arrive and covering the driver events on the Wednesday and Thursday. A lot of people haven’t seen all that, and we’re also going to try and get away from the formulaic replies that F1 drivers give.”

Trying to get exciting answers from modern F1 drivers will not be easy. In fact, it will be nigh on impossible thanks to the sponsorship and PR focus of the sport nowadays. But when a driver is at the circuit he’ll be a lot more closed than he will be away from it. When he doesn’t have a race weekend to think about Sky may well get more interesting answers and interviews. Time will tell…

Is there really enough action to justify such long build-up to races, though? As many of you will have watched Sky’s first F1 race in Melbourne you will have your own opinion. “The fact that your readers want to buy your magazine or read your website means that they clearly want to know more than they can get from just watching the race,” counters Cairns. “Extra coverage will surely be of interest. There is a genuine passion for the sport here and we really want to make great coverage. We’re really excited because we’ve got the backing to do this properly.”

That backing has also meant that Sky can take advantage of the 5.1 Dolby surround sound that Formula One Management supplies. Only one Spanish broadcaster has trialled this to date, even though FOM has been offering it for three years. But the problem is that you need to stream the sound live, which is a large — and expensive — undertaking. The sound is impressive, if you have a surround sound speaker system of course, and prompted Martin Brundle, after he finished his first commentating run through with David Croft, to ask what the banging in the background was in some of the recording. It was a band in one of the grandstands — it’s that sensitive.

“The audio is really important to people at home,” said Darren Long, the director of operations for Sky Sports. “The noise [of an F1 car] puts a tingle down your spine. We’ve built a 5.1 pod [for all the equipment needed] so that we can take it to every race and do our mixing in there. I’m passionate about the sport and I think the noise is such an important part of it.”

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