BERNIE Ecclestone caused a real stir in 1996, when he announced that BBC was losing its coverage of Grand Prix, which they had screened since 1978. He gave the contract to ITV, in a £60million deal. This was a real boost for the commercial channel, especially as they were receiving a traditional battering in the Sunday afternoon rating battles. ITV F1 remained on the air from 1997 until 2008, and although things started strongly, they rapidly went downhill. Despite this, their new angle of Formula One racing changed the way one of the golden jewels in sport would be broadcast forever.
|FIRST: The opening F1 logo for ITV in 1997|
ITV wanted to bring a fresh appeal to the viewer and this meant the controversial decision to drop the iconic racing music; ‘The Chain’ by Fleetwood Mac. Instead, they gave Jamiroquai the chance to create a new racing theme for their coverage. It went down fairly well and had a racing feel to it. The best music theme was the second change in music, ‘Blackbeat’ by Apollo 440, first used in the year 2000. Although Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Moby’s versions of ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ and ‘Lift Me Up’ can’t be faulted for their quality, they simply never suited a Grand Prix theme tune. Ultimately, despite ITV’s best efforts, nothing can beat ‘The Chain’ for Formula One.
When ITV started out, they hired almost a brand new team to bring the action to the homes of millions of British television viewers. Jim Rosenthal, despite not having a prime passion for motorsport, was given the responsibility to anchor the show. He was joined in the studio by Tony Jardine, who moved from the pitlane on the BBC’s Grand Prix team to being a regular pundit. Simon Taylor was also hired too, though he was dropped at the end of ITV’s first year of covering Formula One. In the pits, in-depth coverage was brought by former ESPN reporter James Allen and the ex-Jordan press officer Louise Goodman. In the commentary box, the ‘Voice of Formula One’ Murray Walker was retained and he was partnered with the ex-Tyrrell, Jordan and Brabham pilot Martin Brundle. Brundle, having taken part in over 160 GP races and won Le Mans for Jaguar in 1990 was the perfect foil for Walker and his technical expertise, humorous grid walks and analytical approach won him many fans and awards. In 1997, ITV bought live coverage of every single qualifying session. This was a new formula, as the BBC had only ever shown live qualifying of the British event at Silverstone. If fans wanted live qualifying before 97, they had to buy cable and watch it on Eurosport. The race was as ever, live, with suitable Sunday late highlights and also, a 30 minute Saturday preview show, called Murray and Martin’s F1 Special, which rounded up the earlier afternoon’s qualifying session, had more interviews with the key personnel in the paddock and previewed the following day’s race.
To begin with, ITV’s coverage of Formula One could not be faulted, but for one exception, the annoying commercial breaks. Five advertising breaks were scheduled during every race, and this was never the strongest portray in ITV’s portfolio. In its debut season, UK viewers were treated to dog food commercials, rather than the extraordinary overtake by world champion Damon Hill on Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher for the lead of the Hungarian Grand Prix. Later that year, the two simultaneous engine failures for the leading McLaren cars at the Nurburgring weren’t broadcast live, due to another commercial interruption. As years went on, ITV’s timing for a break got worse. Amongst other moments missed by viewers were Michael Schumacher’s tyre explosion at Suzuka, which ended the 1998 championship and Fernando Alonso’s spectacular engine failure at the 2006 Italian Grand Prix.
The worst moment came at the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix. Schumacher, in an inferior Ferrari, hunted down Alonso’s faster Renault in a gripping and tense scrap at Imola. Unbelievably, with three laps to go, ITV went to its specialist subject, an advertising break! Fans were incensed and fortunately, the break ended before the last lap of the race. Afterwards, an embarrassed Rosenthal was forced to apologise and the final three laps were shown again in it’s entirely, but the damage had been done. Media regulator OFCOM fined ITV Sport for its damming lack of timing at such a critical part of the race. Could you imagine the storm if Schumacher had managed to find a way past Alonso!
Rosenthal quit ITV F1 at the end of the 2005 season, to focus on his main love, boxing. Four years earlier, Murray Walker had decided to hang up his microphone and James Allen was promoted upstairs into the commentary box. He was replaced in the pitlane by a former producer of the programme, Ted Kravitz. Kravitz’s lack of meaningful pit reports, combined with Allen’s general dull commentary voice and the dominance at the start of the millennium by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari led to an alarming decline in viewer ratings.
The cost of ITV producing Formula One, at the time where it was expanding its boxing, rugby and football coverage was because tough to sustain. This was also highlighted by the amount of advertising sponsorship it relied on. Petrol giant Texaco were a solid and trusted partner of ITV’s F1 coverage for its first five seasons. After that, Toyota, the Daily Telegraph, LG, Swiftcover.com, Shell V-Power, Honda and Sony all took turns at sponsoring F1 on ITV. With every sponsorship contract signed, the fee was far less than the previous one, which meant cutbacks had to be made elsewhere. And at the end of the day, who wants to see Clucking Chickens before the start of a Sunday lunchtime race!
Steve Rider joined from the BBC in 2006 and was partnered by former Ligier and Tyrrell driver Mark Blundell. The studio element was dropped, as the presenters opted to do their build-up show from down in the paddock, which was a poor move. Hiring Blundell was a disaster too; as he struggled to come up with any meaningful sentences. Half the time, he seemed to agree with Rider’s questions and the lack of a second pundit hurt ITV in its later years. So too, was its bias of Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton’s emergence onto the Grand Prix scene in 2007 was good news for the viewing figures and won ITV F1 two Sport BAFTA awards, but soon, fans got tired of the constant Hamilton interviews and references, almost forgetting about anyone else on the grid! Considering there were the likes of Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, David Coulthard, Felipe Massa, Giancarlo Fisichella and Robert Kubica on the grid, this was dismal ignorance from ITV. As far as they were concerned, it was Hamilton v 21 other idiots!
|WHAT!: A bird in the 2006 titles showed ITV's failings in latter seasons|
Days before the 2008 Malaysian Grand Prix, Bernie Ecclestone confirmed that the BBC had won the rights to Formula One coverage in the UK from the 2009 season onwards, in a new five-year deal. ITV confirmed their F1 exit was down to cutting costs at the height of the worldwide recession, and they had just signed a new deal to hang onto UEFA Champions League football. Michael Grade, the then chief executive of ITV decided that football was a bigger prize for the broadcaster than Formula One. After 206 races, ITV F1 bowed out with the dramatic 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, which saw Hamilton win the title on the final corner of the season, so it was a fitting end to its groundbreaking and at times, farcical coverage of the sport.
There can be no doubt that ITV did put a new spin on how to do sports broadcasting, but over the 12-year stint it held the F1 rights, there were far too many missed opportunities.