One is the loneliest number

Photo: Network Ten
Australia’s only Formula One radio show. With emphasis on Australia, it’s ironic to think about how many words have been devoted to the discussion of Formula One’s broadcast rights in the UK, while F1 television in our own country has received next to none. I do also recognise the significantly deeper irony that Australia’s only Formula One radio show broadcasts only in Thailand, but let’s put that to one side for now.
However, if you listened to this week’s episode, you may have caught my fair compatriots having a bit of a natter about this matter (yes, I did just say that). You may also have noticed that I was absent from the week’s musings, and if you’re a regular listener (or ‘someone with too much time on their hands’), you’ll know that I’m away for the next few weeks – thus don’t really get a chance to have any input into aforementioned natterings. But, via the power of the internet, here are my considerations in text form. Plus a photo of Greg Rust in action (above, for the uninitiated few).
First, some background. Network Ten in Australia is one of three commercial television consortiums in Australia, and as such has control over a significant amount of digital broadcast spectrum to use as it pleases. Generally speaking, there is enough spectrum to broadcast one channel in high definition, and a further three in standard definition (one of which is a simulcast of the broadcaster’s main channel, also found on analogue television). Still following me?
Also, though digital television has been picked up by the majority of households, the overwhelming majority of viewers continue to watch only the main channels provided by each broadcaster – mostly because the other digital channels are filled largely with repeats of Two and a Half Men.
Ten picked up the rights to broadcast F1 in 2003, and between then and 2008 broadcast all but the Australian Grand Prix on delay. In 2008, Ten pushed races to its digital HD channel – One – and broadcast them live. As of late, qualifying has also been shown live more often than not.
However, for 2012, Ten decided to pull its Formula One race day coverage from One to put it back on on its main channel. Qualifying is still broadcast live on One, but viewers must switch to Ten for the race on Sunday evenings.
This seems to have my fellow hosts quite upset. Skip to to the 30m 40s in this week’s episode and you can hear Peter’s brain explode over the programming decision to show a netball replay in HD on One while Formula One is live, but in SD, on Ten.
Me? I disagree. Twitter followers of both myself and Box Of Neutrals will be aware that we tend to be rather critical of Ten/One’s coverage. The presentation panel of Greg Rust, Daryl Beattie, and Craig Baird – though they fill their roles well enough – are hardly the experts most of the rest of the world is treated to.
‘We have no budget for Formula One in this country,’ said Peter McGinley – and he’s right. Our presenters broadcast from a studio in Sydney, while any on-site content comes from Tom Clarkson or James Allen, who are there doing their own thing anyway. Come race start, Ten throws to Sky F1’s commentary team of David Croft and Martin Brundle.
This is one of the cheapest ways to cover the sport and, as far as I’m concerned, the most effective. A typical race broadcast is a combination of in-studio news, on-site material, and the live race feed with world-class coverage. It’s easy to digest, uncomplicated coverage that is aimed to appeal to the casual viewer. What’s so wrong with that?
Peter McGinley says ‘it’s good for the sport, but it’s not good for the die-hard fans’. True – but that’s good, no? It’s no secret that, while it’s large, Australia’s F1 following isn’t die-hard. The vast majority isn’t involved enough to care that Ten’s content is shallow, and that most issues receive only superficial treatment. They’ll sit down, listen to a bit of Greg Rust’s build-up, see Tom Clarkson chat to Mark Webber’s chin, watch Michael Schumacher crash into something, and go to bed. They don’t need, and probably don’t even want, detailed coverage.
Let’s not forget at this point that Network Ten is a commercial broadcaster. Its investment in the sport only goes so deep as to make a return on the money it spent winning the rights in the first place. That the coverage has moved to its main (albeit SD) channel is a good sign – it means Ten has faith enough in its product to be competitive in the mainstream, and return ratings – which implies Formula One is gaining greater traction in this country. Indeed, Ten says it’s seen a 46 per cent viewership increase since it moved F1 away from One. And, ss what I’ll call (rather wankily) a ‘patron’ of the sport, I’d rather a greater number of people watch F1 in SD, than a small number in HD.
What is an issue is ads. Yes, I fully understand that this is how Ten makes it money. I really do understand this. But the frequency of the ads is, at times, unbearable. This is something that needs to be addressed.
I know it’s something this country has thus far left unexplored, but the idea of advertising by ticker-tape, of by reducing the vision to a quarter of the screen to display a commercial message in the rest, is a potential alternative. I watched the Spanish Grand Prix on Switzerland’s SF1, which used this sort of method. It’s different, and I’m not sure if it would work in Australia, but it’d be worth a shot. At least the racing, which is continuous by nature, would remain uninterrupted. And Greg Rust could stop telling me how great the action is, and then knife me in the back by throwing to an ad.
As for Peter’s suggestion of copying the BBC/Sky F1 deal for Australia, I’m not so sure. As one of those few Australian F1 die-hards, I’d love a dedicated Formula One station, and a there’s probably someone keen on a gamble who’d consider backing that sort of deal. But the secret behind this concept is the UK’s enormous passionate fan base, who could be relied upon to make the switch to pay TV.
Meanwhile, the country’s similarly significant number of casual viewers stuck with the BBC. The BBC has even found that it has attracted more viewers to its coverage this year than last, as its delayed coverage is aired at a time more convenient. I predicted this (because I’m so clever/probably read it somewhere else) at the time, and I’m quietly smug that it’s happening. DANCE, PUPPETS. DANCE. But, in sum, Australia simply does not have the viewership to sustain this sort of deal. Not with most races taking place after 10PM on a Sunday night, anyway. Such an audience fracture would be fatal.
So where does this leave us? I’m not saying by any means that Ten’s coverage can’t be tightened. Rob’s example during the show of Craig Baird’s largely redundant explanation of the Schumacher/Senna crash is testament to this. I’m also certainly not saying that campaigns such as Boycott Ten Sport are pointless – there should always be live coverage of Formula One. That much I agree with.
However, calls for Formula One to return to HD are misjudged. It is for the benefit of the sport in this country to keep it where it is most accessible. If that happens to be in SD, then so be it – I care more for the expansion of the sport in Australia than I do for the number of pixels I watch it in.

 Get rid of the 5 cent coin and 10. I want all notes no coins go @MichaelLamonato

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