Crossing the Channel: Analysing C4’s live F1 debut
I’ve been an occasional rather than regular poster on the Rejects forums down the years, but I’ve clearly mentioned enough times that I work as a radio producer that someone has noticed. I was recently invited, on the eve of the new F1 season kicking off, to use my media “expertise” to cast my eye over the new Channel 4 coverage, and come up with a few words about what I thought for this website.
Now, first off I should get the disclaimers out of the way. Although I work for one of the world’s largest and most esteemed television broadcasters, and indeed work in a building with and alongside people who make television every day, I have never actually been involved in making television myself. I am, as I mentioned, a radio producer – and of course, the views I express here are purely my own opinions, and nothing to do with my employer.
So what can I tell you?
Well, I can tell you that presenting, whether it be in radio or television, is hard. It really, truly is. Not difficult or stressful in the same sense that being a nurse or a teacher or any other truly valuable profession is, but within its own field, it is difficult. And hey, everything is relative – and if you were doing that school type exercise of deciding who would go on the rocket ship to build a new society if the Earth were doomed, let’s face it, neither presenters nor racing drivers are getting in there. They’re all part of the useless occupations which nonetheless keep us entertained.
I mention this because I have seen, on the Rejects forum and elsewhere, poor old Steve Jones – the presenter chosen by Channel 4 to front their new coverage – come in for some flack. Partly, this is understandable because he seems to have come out of nowhere; surely I can’t be alone in never having heard of him before he got this job?
There is an in-built suspicion in fandoms of all kinds, whether they be of a team, a sport or a television series, of anyone who comes in from ‘outside’ to become involved in their world. What does he or she know about it? Why have they chosen that person, when they’ve never had anything to do with it before?
It’s something Jake Humphrey had to face when he got the job for the BBC back in 2009, and it’s something Jones now seems to be confronted with. I think a lot of people would prefer a Steve Rider figure, someone who has an established background of knowing about and presenting programmes about motorsport, rather than someone who seems to have been parachuted in from nowhere.
Now, if you do think that, then that’s absolutely fair enough, and your own choice to do so. We’re all allowed our own opinions and tastes. But does that make Steve Jones a bad presenter?
No, absolutely not.
This is the one thing I can say here with absolute certainty, based on a certain amount of experience, albeit in my case on the radio and only on a local rather than a national level. It is extremely difficult to go in front of a live microphone – and a camera ever more so – and not make a complete idiot of yourself. You think you can talk. You can talk normally and fluently with friends and family and colleagues. So why then do you open your mouth on-air and just stumbling, stuttering rubbish comes out?
Those who can do it, naturally and fluently, are celebrated and carried head-high in TV and radio land, and there is no question that Steve Jones can do it, and with quite a natural and relaxed manner, too.
Don’t believe me? Try it. Go on. Try talking, casually, clearly and informatively, about even a subject you know a lot about. Try recording, say, a minute or so of yourself on your phone. And you’re even luckier than they are on Just a Minute on BBC Radio 4, as you don’t have to worry about deviation or repetition – hesitation is the enemy here. To “err” is human, so we’re told, but to do it on television or radio just makes you sound like an idiot.
Somehow, a subject you could carry on a conversation about for hours with friends just leaves you umming and erring when you try it as a presenter. Yes, certain sections can be scripted, introductions and cues into packages and so forth, but when you’re reacting to live events you have to be able to talk around a subject, and do so with the same fluency as with something you have rehearsed.
Add to that the fact that in television, you have to carry this off with someone talking in your ear… almost all the time. It’s called talkback, and is similar to team radio in F1, except when you’re a presenter of a live programme you can’t shout at the PA or the director not to talk to you at certain points – corners or otherwise.
Talkback allows those in charge of the programme to keep the presenter to time, to keep them aware of what’s coming up, to alert them to any problems or issues or changes, and in TV it happens almost constantly when the presenter is live. In radio we have it too, but we’re luckier in that we have to deal with it in our ears when we’re talking live much less often, as obviously it’s easier to get written notes and instructions to a presenter when nobody can see you.
If you want to see just what a skill presenting with all this racket going on in your ear is, head to YouTube where there are any number of examples of programmes available with the talkback track included alongside what went out on air. If you’ve never taken a look at anything like that before, then I guarantee that your admiration for anybody who can present a TV programme even vaguely competently will increase tenfold.
That said, Jones didn’t have a completely spotless weekend when it came to Channel 4’s first live outing, in Bahrain. He rather dug himself into a hole when asking Susie Wolff about whether she was “allowed” to have a different view on something from her husband, Mercedes boss Toto. Now, I’m sure that Jones intended this as a bit of matey jocularity and not to be anything like the patronising remark that it seemed on-air, but in the heat of the live moment his ill-chosen phraseology clearly annoyed Wolff, as you’d expect, and she rightly chided him with a hasty biteback of “I am allowed to have my own opinions!” I did feel sorry for Jones there, as many of us have said stupid things live on-air, but at least he was called up on it, and it was his only really awful moment of the weekend.
You could argue the merits of whether or not Wolff deserves to be a pundit for them given that she never started an F1 race, but I thought her contributions were of interest and value, albeit she often seemed to be quite badly served by the sound mixer – I think she needed to be bumped up a bit, as her levels often seemed lower than her fellow pundits.
Speaking of audio issues, it’s early days for Channel 4 and they really need to sort out some guest microphones. When Sky are joined by an interviewee, usually they’ve been handed or are quickly handed an extra mic they can use by some nearby production assistant or runner. I think the BBC did this as well – perhaps Channel 4 don’t have enough spoffles with their logo on yet, as when Toto Wolff was being interviewed by David Coulthard and Mark Webber before the race, Coulthard had to hand Wolff his microphone, which then ruled poor old David out of most of the rest of the chat!
The Coulthard-and-Webber duo also got to jointly handle gridwalk duties, and although it was a rather shambolic sequence in places, it was amiably rather than annoyingly so, and I have to say I enjoyed it. They should probably not quite so easily lose one another on the grid, however, and perhaps if they are going to split up they should each have a camera operator rather than having to have one running between the two of them!
These are merely teething troubles, of course, and such things can be quickly and easily sorted. I did like the way in which their VT packages before the race and qualifying were directly related to what was going on – the piece with Coulthard trying to commentate and race at the same time as he followed the Red Bull boys around was quite good fun. There was none of the ridiculous filler of the “We take Minardi’s third wheel man scuba diving,” or “We take Ron Dennis’s sister’s dog to a fashion show,” type which has infected everyone’s coverage – be it ITV, BBC or Sky – at some point or another over the past twenty years or so.
Not yet, anyway – hopefully they’ll keep their features relevant and to the point as the season progresses. I really don’t think the lighter stuff pulls in anybody else who isn’t already watching, and most of it just annoys those of us who are watching for the main business of the day anyway.
A lot of the rest of the offering was quite similar to the BBC’s line-up from 2012 onwards – Ben Edwards and David Coulthard on commentary duty, with Lee McKenzie chasing drivers down the paddock for their thoughts. Edwards and Coulthard make for a decent team, but I’m afraid I do find Brundle and Croft more to my taste on the other side. My provider doesn’t offer Sky Sports F1 in high definition, only in standard, so for live races I have a choice between HD on Channel 4, or SD with Brundle and co on Sky, and I fear I’ll probably choose commentary over picture quality for most of the rest of the races this season.
But for those who don’t have a choice, I don’t think that Channel 4 is a bad offering at all. They got lucky in that their first race was a decent one, and having Coulthard doing the podium interviews was a boon as it made them seem much more a part of what was happening. It was also nice – although I don’t think they really had a choice, given what they’re up against – that unlike ITV they decided not to interrupt the live racing with any advert breaks. You might consider coming back to the coverage halfway through the drivers putting their caps on ahead of the podium proceedings might have missed some juicy chatter, but I think this many years in the drivers are well aware of the fact they’re going out live in there, and there are fewer gems to be found there nowadays.
All-in-all I’d give Channel 4 a thumbs-up for the first efforts in the sport. Especially so given that before they’d even had a chance to broadcast a live race they’d somewhat had the rug pulled out from under them with the announcement that this three-year deal is all they’re getting, with Sky taking on the sport exclusively from 2019 onwards. The production team could have been forgiven for thinking “oh what’s the bloody point?” after that. But they didn’t, and hats off to them and their dedication – good luck to them all for this season and the two beyond.