ITV have dropped Formula E from their ITV4 schedule. This means that currently Formula E does not have a terrestrial broadcaster in the UK. But let’s be honest, this news is not altogether unexpected; it took until September last year, under a month before the first race of season 2, for ITV to agree on a season 2 deal and it was clear all was not well when they decided not to broadcast the Mexico ePrix live at all, due to a clash with Snooker. (Infact the Snooker, although attracting a bigger audience would only have clashed with the buildup; ITV instead opted to show reruns of Storage Wars whilst the race happened) It’s no secret though that ITV have instead splashed out on Horse Racing; looking at the lack of viewers FE got you can kind of see why, but one has to wonder if it’s a case of ITV not trying their hardest with a flawed product or if Formula E’s UK TV coverage was always destined to fail because it was put on a lacklustre channel with (outside of the British Touring Car Championship, which is a thriving national series with a very long and established history on their channel) a pretty patchy track record of Motorsport broadcasting. Ask anyone who watched their F1 coverage between 1997 and 2008.
The sad thing is that the coverage itself on the most part wasn’t bad at all; sure, it was a bit of a shame to see Jennie Gow and co. cooped up in a London studio all season when it wouldn’t have cost all that much to fly them out to Paris or Berlin for example, but I felt that the production team did a solid job overall and they let Aurora Media Worldwide do their job by showing their VT’s, and the excellent commentary team of Jack Nichols and Dario Franchitti was definitely a highlight and a huge asset during both seasons. (Though Mike Conway, Scott Speed, Bob Varsha and Alan McNish filled in when one of the duo was committed at a motorsport event elsewhere) The main show was pretty much there despite not being all that well promoted via advertising.
The same can’t be said sadly for the magazine show they produced, Sound of the Future. If you’re not familiar with it (And boy, is ignorance bliss) then it is a poorly put together show featuring a smattering of decent driver interviews surrounded by horrifically bland filler. To give you an idea of how awful it was, the first episode in Beijing featured an introductory segment of the cameraman asking random people in the streets “Where is Formula E?”, being pointed every which way but the race track at the Olympic stadium (Also providing an excuse to use B-Roll they’d shot of the Great Wall of China) before they eventually ‘found it’. Not really a great intro by any standards, but they decided to let this one note segment of asking the same question to random members of the public run for just under 4 minutes, although I swear it felt so much longer. The cherry on the top of this muffin of excrement was the presenter (I don’t remember his name but he also narrated the qualifying recap for ITV’s race shows) who constantly sounded bored out of his mind and completely uninvested in the teams and drivers that the show covered; and if he doesn’t care then why should we? I stopped watching Sound of the Future after about 2/3 aborted attempts to watch different episodes, not helped by the fact that ITV4 was broadcasting them at incredibly random timeslots. (Ranging from 10AM, 6:45 AM, and even just before the Punta Del Este race at about 2/3 PM.) Compared to CNN’s Formula E Magazine show Supercharged, which is presented by Formula E’s pitlane reporter Nicki Shields, (Who by contrast knows what she’s talking about and gets across the passion and personality of the sport really well; especially ideal for a nascent sport) is far better edited, much more engaging and more informative; it gave it’s audience more and did so in a neatly presented package. It’s the show that I think a lot of us wanted in the UK…But instead we got Sound of the Future. Figures.
Despite ITV’s degree of incompetence, perhaps it’s time to admit that Formula E has only a niche appeal in the UK; and maybe that’s as good as it’s realistically going to get. You can’t force a sport to launch into the mainstream just by adamantly stating that it will. Sure, there was the Damien Walters stunt jump over an FE car in Mexico, and full credit to both to Walters and to FEH for putting so much work and risk into it in order to pull it off; it was a great novelty. But although novelty gets you talked about on Saturday morning talk shows, it doesn’t last. The same way the novelty of a motorsports event in London for the first time in over 40 years wore off; look at the viewing figures on ITV’s main channel for this year’s finale, by far the worst of the FTA channels for that timeslot. It’s very bizarre too that Formula E’s TV coverage isn’t gaining any traction in the UK, and yet Aurora Media and Little Dot Studios are winning UK broadcasting industry awards for their content. (Heck, ITV were even partly credited by the judges) Worldwide the picture looks more rosy, with US viewing growing from 10% in the first season to 29% by January in the second, and a strong audience in Japan built up during the first season by public broadcaster TV Asahi. (Keep in mind Japan doesn’t even have a race, and with Team Aguri changing owners they no longer have a team to support) But it’s at the home of it’s testing venue and it’s London HQ where Formula E seems to have made the most underwhelming impact.
So with no more ITV, how will Formula E’s cult following (And it pains me to say it but that’s what it is right now) survive in the UK? We should still have the online livestream (As we did with Mexico) but the figures for that are not that impressive either, and I can’t imagine the likes of Channel 4 or Channel 5 picking it up, and especially not the cash-strapped BBC. (C4 in particular put a lot of effort and resources into this year’s F1 coverage after the BBC dropped it at short notice…I highly doubt they would do the same for FE given the difference in viewing figures) Unfortunately Pay TV looks the most likely option, indeed for countries like the US and Australia it’s always been the only option, so my best guess is that BT sport or Eurosport will probably take up the slack. But we could just as easily be left with only the Livestream, which I’m sure is not at all what anybody involved in the sport wants, but their hands may be forced.
Perhaps more concerning is how the lack of a TV deal will affect any future UK race. Not many will agree with me but I don’t think the fact that London doesn’t currently have a race affected ITV’s decision all that much, however I do think ITV abandoning ship will affect FE’s decision over any future London ePrix (Don’t forget that Moscow is waiting in the wings) as with no TV coverage at all a UK race will be much less commercially attractive. But I guess we just have to have faith in Formula E, especially given that they have gotten out of worse situations like bankruptcy and court rulings threatening to curtail the series. They are definitely able to turn things around.