Formula 1: It's the Coverage, Stupid!

Well, the Australian Grand Prix is over, and once again I have to face ridicule from people like Dushyanth, who ask:

“Why do you watch this “sport”? All they do is go round and round in circles, and in the end Schumacher wins.”

As time goes by, I have fewer and fewer answers to that question. But instead of talking about Formula 1 as a sport, let’s discuss it as a media event.

Troll and Supermodel

Supermodel and Troll

In particular, I’d like to know who took the competent TV producers and replaced them with Folger’s Crystals. Without reference to the actual events of the race, the entire production from start to finish was a train wreck of Hesperian proportions. The chosen camera angles were bad. The cuts were bad. The FIA-provided graphics were bad. Everything was bad. How bad was it? It was so monumentally bad that on the US Speed Channel broadcast, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett were saying things like “I say, Steve, this coverage sure is terrible.” “Yes, David, you’re right. It certainly is. Why, this is worse than the toad-in-the-hole I had down at the Vicar’s on St. Swithin’s Day.” (Editorial note: the author is paraphrasing). There is nothing positive one can say about the FIA-provided feed short of “Well, at least we didn’t have to see that horrific troll Flavio Briatore necking with whichever supermodel girlfriend he’s with this week.”

Passes were ignored. Cars would burst dynamically through a camera’s field view, about to make a spectacular overtake, and the camera would remain still, pointing at the bereft, empty stretch of road behind the pass. Occasionally, a camera would accidentally be about to catch a pass in progress, at which point the program director would cut to a shot of the pit crew, filing their nails.

FIA likes to blame the local team they contract with for the poor quality of the camerawork at a given race, but given that it is the FIA that is doing the contracting, why shouldn’t they be held accountable?

Also new this year are different graphics to represent the running order and gaps between cars. They are as comprehensible as an interpretive dance version of Jude the Obscure. Perhaps this is fallout from last year’s super-smooth “FIA blames Tag Heuer for FIA’s mistake” PR disaster in Brazil, but these are truly the worst graphics to have appeared on my TV screen since the Coleco Telstar Arcade was released. Periodically, a vertical bar with cells with the first three letters of each driver’s last name in an unreadable font would appear. Then it would flicker rapidly, initials shuffling and permuting. Eventually, it would go away. At that point, everyone in the room I was in turned and looked at each other and said “What the heck was that?”

Look at NASCAR. No, really, look at it closely. Even if you don’t like oval racing, everything about the NASCAR presentation is carefully designed, well thought out, and professionally implemented. Massive amounts of statistics are presented in a short period of time in a way that even an unsophisticated viewer can interpret. In addition, the camera coverage at a NASCAR race blows away even the best F1 coverage (which would in my opinion probably be found at either of the German races). Even on their road courses, there is practically no event at a NASCAR race that happens off-camera or is not covered immediately after it happens. The coverage is consistent and superb.

Racing fans are easily spoiled. What was acceptable TV coverage in 1984 is completely inadequate for 2004. As long as F1 can’t figure out a strategy to improve their production values, they will continue to lose ground, world- wide.

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