ITV F1: goodbye or good riddance?

ITV will broadcast its final F1 race on Sunday.

It will be the 206th Grand Prix covered by the broadcaster. But because they interrupt races with adverts they have missed over 31 races? worth of live action from the races alone.

Adverts are just one reason why the channel has attracted so much comment and criticism from fans in its 12 years as British F1 broadcaster. Will it be goodbye or good riddance when the transmission ends?

Goodbye

An improvement

It?s easy to criticise ITV ?ǣ because it?s easy to forget how limited the coverage of F1 on the BBC often was before it lost the contract at the end of 1996. It was only late in the life of ??Grand Prix?? ?ǣ BBC?s much-loved F1 programme ?ǣ that live qualifying coverage was featured.

Nor did the BBC ever solve to problem of how to replace James Hunt. Hunt was the perfect foil to Murray Walker in the commentary box, but successor Jonathan Palmer was less successful.

Martin Brundle

When ITV took up the F1 rights in 1997 it solved the problem straight away, by pairing Walker with Martin Brundle. In many ways the boundless enthusiasm of Walker and the experience and wry humour of Brundle was superior to the old Walker-Hunt pairing.

ITV?s F1 coverage began brightly. It helped that 1997 was an exciting season with one of the most heart-stopping championship finales ever seen. But with established F1 pundits like Simon Taylor and Tony Jardine, I found a lot to like in ITV?s approach.

Brundle has gone from strength to strength. In 2005 he faced down Bernie Eccletone on the grid at Indianapolis about the chaos unfolding around them. In 2006 he pursued Max Mosley in the same fashion at Monza over Fernando Alonso’s ludicrous penalty.

That the FIA are now apparently leaning on the BBC not to hire him next year because they are intimidated by his criticism is a testament to the quality of job Brundle has done. The BBC must bring him on board for 2009.

Good riddance

Over time I found myself increasingly frustrated with the changes to ITV?s coverage. But the worst problem with it was there from the start: the adverts.

Adverts

I know F1 fans outside Britain who?ve always had to put up with adverts during F1 races will find me complaining about ITV?s a bit petty ?ǣ but I make no apology for it. Especially today, when digital television and the internet means they could easily offer an advert-free service for a subscription fee ?ǣ something other racing series have been doing for years.

Nor did ITV ever bother trying to use picture-in-picture to show the race alongside adverts, which is common practice in other countries.

The arrival of adverts meant we all had to get used to missing some of the most exciting moments of the past decade-and-a-bit.

Damon Hill?s shock pass on Michael Schumacher at the Hungaroring in 1997? ITV missed it. The puncture that ended Schumacher?s title hopes at Suzuka in 1998? ITV missed it. The gearbox glitch that ruined Lewis Hamilton?s title bid at Interlagos last year? ITV missed it.

This is just a handful of examples. One of the most infamous occurred in 2005 ?ǣ not long after I began this site. ITV made such a botch of the San Marino Grand Prix coverage the tense final laps as Fernando Alonso battled to keep Schumacher at bay were largely missed.

Based on 2007 figures*, ITV have missed so much live action during live Grands Prix it amounts to over 31 races worth of footage.

And for several years live qualifying sessions at certain rounds was missed entirely as ITV chose to show other programmes.

Commentary team

Having solved the ??how to replace James Hunt? problem, ITV didn?t do as good a job with the ??how to replace Murray Walker? problem.

Admittedly it was always going to be fiendishly tough to replace someone like Murray, to whom the clich?? ??national institution? is often applied with good reason.

Writing on Grandprix.com earlier this week Mike Doodson said:

Although a couple of venomous websites have long had it in for James Allen as ITV?s lead race commentator, I find him both knowledgeable and authoritative. Yes, his forced cheeriness can be irritating at times, but he almost always susses out race strategies correctly and makes far fewer mistakes than Murray Walker used to do.

I don?t agree that it?s just ??a couple of venomous websites? (Sniff Petrol?) that don?t like James Allen. If there?s one thing I?ve done a lot of, it?s talk to other British F1 fans. And the near universal verdict on Allen is not a positive one.

It?s a shame because Allen is clearly as passionate about F1 as you or I. I like his writing (read his last book on Michael Schumacher), I thought he suited his earlier role of pit lane reporter very well, he?s joined us in the world of F1 blogging, and he?s not as partisan as you might think ?ǣ in a recent column on ITV-F1 he re-affirmed his belief that Alonso is the best driver in F1 today. But I just don?t like his commentary style.

Allen also gets it in the neck for ITV?s partisanship but I think this is an editorial policy they are expected to adhere to. I thought the BBC trod the line between balanced reportage and national sympathy very well ?ǣ I don?t think ITV is aware such a line exists. My assumption is, from day one, they?ve tried to drive up viewing figures for advertising purposes by over-selling the British angle.

Somewhere along the line Jardine, Taylor and the purpose-built studio disappeared. Now we have Steve Rider and Mark Blundell struggling to make themselves heard. This at least was an improvement over the dark days of Beverley Turner interviewing a celebrity hairdresser on how he prepares his Sunday roast. I’m not making this up.

An episode last year highlighted the sorry state of ITV’s F1 coverage – and the lack of comprehension in traditional media about the contempt most fans hold it in. After a frantic Canadian Grand Prix which saw Robert Kubica suffer a huge crash and lewis Hamilton score his first win, ITV rushed through the post-event coverage so they could hurry on to other programming. After masses of criticism from fans ITV published a pitiful attempt at an apology.

Despite the hammering they took from the public, ITV were inexplicably handed a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award – and quietly took the apology down for their website.

*2007 average race length was 1hr 34min, and ITV showed 4hr 6min of adverts in total. Projecting those averages across its 206 races gives a total of 49 hrs, 40 minutes. See here for more: How much F1 did ITV miss showing adverts in 2007?

The end

The weighting of this article will give you a clear impression that I’m more in the ‘good riddance’ camp than ‘goodbye’. But I think we should remember ITV have brought some improvements to F1 coverage. Broadcasting the Friday practice sessions online this year was a big step forward.

ITV has at least done enough with their coverage that it won’t just be enough for the BBC to take over next year with ad-free coverage and expect that alone to be welcomed as an improvement. British fans will expect online coverage, HD footage, and most importantly, Martin Brundle.

What’s your verdict on ITV’s 12 years as Britain’s F1 broadcaster? Are you a reader from abroad who has to put up with worse?

More on BBC’s F1 coverage in 2009

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93 comments on ITV F1: goodbye or good riddance?

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  1. I agree with Tony Dodgkins, Allens not bad, hes knowledgeble and a genuine fan. But it seems we just dont make commentators who sound like their sport anymore, ted Lowe snooker, that old bloke who did the horses and the even older one who did the tennis, dan maskell pron: “Deyan Meyaskell.”

    Murray was a complete scatter brain but his pitch and tone were perfect as were his melodramatic pronouncemounts. Allen didnt have a chance against that. But all in all theyve had a good run and have raised the bar. No adverts and the chain are almost all the beeb need to raise it further but please no lifestyle pieces.

  2. schumi the greatest said on 29th October 2008, 11:30

    Well i only started watching f1 seriously in 97 when itv already had the contract. my main grumble has always been the adverts.

    but there are, as you say keith, some positives. the build up to the races has always been good in my opionion, often a whole hour of build up with features and interviews and technical features.

    but there are plenty of things itv has done which i dont like, plenty of people who read this site compalin about the bias towards hamilton (myself included) but ther’s always been a birtish angle to the coverage. 98 was all about coulthard (all the adverts in the week leading up to the race would focus on him) the same thing happened in 99, only this time with eddie irvine.

    though my main issue is the team of experts they have there now. Other than brundle i think they are all crap. blundell offers nothing whatso ever and i dont like james allens commentary (if i hear about hamiltons drive in gp2 at istanbul 06 never again it would be too soon)

    i just hope the bbc leanrs from what itv has done good and bad and find the perfect soulution.

  3. John Spencer said on 29th October 2008, 11:36

    People are very harsh on James Allen – and it’s not always deserved. For some reason his enthusiasm has never been as endearing as Murray Walker’s – maybe if he were 80 it would be different. But Allen/Brundle are a much better pairing than Walker/Hunt ever were in the old BBC days, when coverage was very limited indeed.

    But both BBC and ITV coverage are better than many countries. I’ve had many frantic channel flicking moments in hotels across Europe and Central/North America only to find that local coverage starts literally moments before the race.

    Here’s hoping that lack of adverts will make the BBC coverage. What’s most annoying about ITV is when you get up at four in the morning, watch a few minutes of coverage before the first commercial, only to find that the lack of middle-of-the-night advertisers doesn’t stop ITV filling a yawning gap with previews of its own programmes.

  4. Steve said on 29th October 2008, 11:49

    GOOD RIDDANCE.

    I live in Belgium, an before F1 moved to ITV, I loved to watch the race on BBC (Murray Walker played a big rol in that).
    When the BBC ended there broadcasts, I was forced to watch F1 on the VRT (Belgium national broadcast). Bad commentaries, if the race time was in conflict with an other show, you could see a 30 min summary late in the evening, but no rerun. Or no race at all.

    Viva la BBC

  5. yeang said on 29th October 2008, 12:03

    i live in singapore and the only channels which show f1 races are cable channels (ie. i have to pay a subscription fee) – adverts are rife too but thankfully i haven’t really missed anything of great importance over the last two seasons

  6. Cameron aka. SkinBintin said on 29th October 2008, 12:08

    Here in New Zealand we have to pay for a Sky Television subscription to watch F1 Qualifying and Grand Prix’s. They just play the ITV content. It still has ad breaks, even though we are PAYING for it. So annoying. Hopefully, Sky has retained the rights even though british rights have moved to BBC. I’d much rather keep British commentators than NZ moving to converage from a different country.

  7. On TV adverts in general, Mike Doodson has a point in his Brazil GP article:

    … interrupting an F1 race in order to sell stuff is, and always will be, an insult to the viewers’ intelligence: if the TV broadcasters don’t dare to do it to football or rugby, what gives them the idea that they can inflict it on F1?

    Think of the outrage there would be when TV stations put commercials in the middle of a football/soccer match…

  8. One thing that you guys in Britain get that we don’t get in Canada on TSN is decent pre-race coverage. It is nice to see the guys doing interviews in the paddock and small segments prior to the grands prix.

    In Canada on TSN we have Vic Rauter in the studio in Toronto talking to a bloke who is on a cell phone at the race. Their predictions are horrible and most of the news they talk about is at least a week old. They have no up to the minute information on anything and they just make a hash of it for a half hour while you watch a mainly video only TV feed from FOM. At least they sydicate the ITV feed for the face with Martin Brundle et al. For the Canadian Grand Prix, TSN does it’s own coverage.

  9. Good riddance. I only started watching F1 in about 2002-03 so ITV is all I’ve known but the adverts have been a constant annoyance the whole time.
    I have a feeling though that the BBC coverage may not live up to the high expectations we seem to have. They’re going to be just as biased towards Hamilton, and may not have as much pre-race build up and for all we know the new team might work terribly together and we may end up missing Allen (!).
    But as long as I can watch a full, uninterrupted race then I’ll be happy. And as long as the BBC follow ITV’s lead and broadcast Friday practice somewhere (red button perhaps).

  10. I’m glad it’s gone, I was gutted when I heard ITV were going to be broadcasting F1. I have hated it since before it even started – adverts and F1 don’t mix, and don’t get me started on James Allen.

  11. S Hughes said on 29th October 2008, 12:28

    Mark my words, we will miss ITV coverage pretty soon when the BBC take over next year. The criticism of Allen has been mainly from Hamilton haters who do not want his name even mentioned. I don’t think any of the presenters are unduly partisan considering Lewis is British and vying for the championship – have a look at Spanish and Italian coverage for real bias. I will miss all of them – I think Rider is very professional and good at being an anchor, Blundell is a warm, comfy figure, Brundle is great at the technical side as is Ted Kravitz, I must say I won’t miss Louise Goodman, and James Allen is a very good enthusiastic commentator. Sometimes the “mob” is not the best judge and the BBC seem to be more and more led by mob mentality nowadays.

  12. @Keith:

    British fans will expect online coverage, HD footage, and most importantly, Martin Brundle.

    More importantly, fans will also expect Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” as the theme tune to the GP coverage, although knowing the BBC it will be a Big Beat remix featuring a rap from Dizzee Rascal.
    .
    As for ITV; it speaks volumes that people are celebrating the return to the BBC purely because there will be no adverts. You can’t come back from an ad break with the words “You are now looking at the new world champion because THIS happened whilst you were away” and have people respect you as a sports broadcaster. They will be remembered for all the on-track incidents they missed through adverts than they will for all the good stuff they brought to F1 telly coverage.

  13. I’ll miss Steve Rider’s wobbly mike hand…

  14. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 29th October 2008, 12:32

    S Hughes –

    The criticism of Allen has been mainly from Hamilton haters who do not want his name even mentioned.

    No it isn’t. Before Hamilton there was Button. but even then most of the criticism I’ve heard about Allen comes down to his style.

  15. ceedas said on 29th October 2008, 12:32

    ITV generally improved over the years, but made a few mistakes along the way, all of which have been mentioned in the article. Although I was never a fan of James Allen in any role.

    The BBC will be providing coverage of all F1 sessions and most support races next year (red button), so I expect it will feel like a quantum leap from what ITV have been offering. As long as the commentary is acceptable (I’m not sure I’ll like it), and the bias is reduced to almost nil, it should be pretty good.

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