HD adds lustre to seating, team suits and Sky revenues

People say that the sports programming shown exclusively on Sky Sports has historically been the real engine of subscriber and revenue growth for the Rupert Murdoch owned Sky satellite channel. Premiership football has definitely driven many people to sign up with Sky Sports who otherwise wouldn’t have done so and, if its boosters and/or press releases are to be believed, Sky are delighted with the success of their speedway programming. Again, even if assumptions are dangerous, this must mean that showing speedway has both attracted more subscribers and/or reduces cancellation rates during the summer months.

Subscribing to Sky Sports for the duration of the speedway season isn’t cheap – eight months at £36 (thirty six whole English pounds for low definition!) costs £288 – more than enough to buy a season ticket to watch at your local speedway club every week! Multiply this cost by the 100,000 viewers we so often hear about and that’s £28.8 million or a lot of delight. Though not traditionally seen as a golden goose, looked at in subscription terms alone, the speedway audience isn’t to be sniffed at! Actually I’m pretty amazed, given some of the dire processional Elite League and SGP meetings they regularly televise that their audience remains so robust. Obviously such huge sums also raise the question of the terms and value of past, present and future contracts British speedway negotiate with Sky.

To milk the fatted calf some more, Sky Sports recently announced that from this (2010) season – speedway would be shown in HD! (be still my beating heart) HD presently costs an exorbitant £46 per month! If everyone “upgrades”, then that could generate another £8 million and take total speedway subscription revenues to a cool £36.8 million! These are the kind of figures that leap off the page in the way that HD allegedly makes the action do! Worryingly for Sky and their HD initiative is their previous history of failure with heavy handed initiatives made without plausible reason let alone satisfying verifiable consumer demand. For example, who can forget their insistence on the use of GREEN HELMET COLOURS? Ostensibly so the camera could pick out the riders ‘better’! This really stands out as an ignominious failure and, thankfully, is now rescinded! Perhaps, HD will be the exception that proves the rule and might actually drive more new or lapsed fans through the turnstiles as well as provide greater enjoyment?

All the talk of HD along with the chance to see some of the closer racing that’s the hallmark of televised Premier League speedway meetings prompts me to fire up the laptop and wear the 3D glasses I got the last time I went to the cinema. The only glasses usually associated with the Sky speedway coverage are the rose tinted versions issued as standard to the commentary team for use during any and every turgid meeting. However, with my 3D glasses on, the chance to see Nigel P and Kelvin T in Avatar coloured bright blue is really too thrilling a prospect to miss. Maybe I’ve misunderstood the HD concept but the pictures from Hertfordshire reveal not only is Nigel his usual pale and interesting self but even worse – shock, horror – Kelvin is nowhere to be seen! Can the world still turn safely on its axis without Kelv gurning excitably (“whoa! I say!”) away live about the brilliance of EL speedway on a Monday night? It’s been a while since I watched speedway on Sky but this level of wholly unnecessary change is unconscionable.

My initial thought – and its only a personal impression – is that this HD lark isn’t all it’s been cracked up to, is it? I’d hoped that with the glasses on, these processional races we all know, love and see as the hallmark of Sky Sports speedway Elite League meeting coverage would massively improve. Sadly it still looks just as processional as it always did, even when the Premier League teams race. One bright spot – thankfully, with the steadying influence of Chris Louis beside him, Nigel didn’t feel the need to compete with Kelvin’s squealing orgasmic excitement every time nothing much happens or threatens to happen but doesn’t. Though Nigel can’t see the action in HD, he’s always keen to let the viewers without this technological innovation know exactly what they’re missing out on when they watch in low definition (LD), “great to see both teams looking so smart in their team suits in high definition!” Wow! We all find team suits so absorbing and the most exciting thing about speedway – and now we can see them even more clearly! It’s a miracle!

Something else that’s also exponentially better in HD is coin tossing. Always the showman, Len Silver sets great store by igniting the imaginations of the youthful fans of tomorrow by throwing the £1 coin used to toss for gate position at the start of the meeting into the Hoddesdon crowd! For major meetings, the investment doubles and a £2 coin is used. Sadly, Sky fail to capture this drama in either HD or LD so I’m left feeling cheated sitting there in my 3D glasses. Luckily, the producer’s much more on the ball for the breathtaking spectacle of the heat 15 £2 toss of the coin. Sadly, this all goes badly awry and the natural cliffhanger drama of this potentially mega significant moment quickly loses its lustre. Ever the professional, and not at all happy with the initial original toss, Charlie Webster demands more tossing but can’t persuade Graham Drury.
[Charlie] “£2 it’s usually 50p! Are you going to call?”
[Graham] “Let me spin it first!”
[Charlie searches to find coin] “Tails”
[Graham] “We’ll have gates one and three”
[Charlie] “You’ve got to do it again!”
[Graham] “Why do I have to do it again?”
[Charlie, second toss] “Heads!”
[Graham] “Heads?”
[Charlie, ponders possible decisive third toss of coin] “Okay, we’ll go with the first time”
[John Sampford] “We’ll have Sundstrom on one”
[Graham] “No! We’re on one!”

For Nigel, even the seats look good in HD, “I’ve got to say that the new seating that they’ve put in on bends one and two and bends three and four is looking lovely!” Fortunately there are no more bends for Nigel to admire at this speedway track or we could have been there all night savouring their newfound glory. Monday night televised speedway is invariably littered with opinion, hyperbole and bombast masquerading as (unsubstantiated) fact. Indeed, every week Sky Sports broadcast the speedway in High BS (HBS). However, not only do Sky break the speedway mould with the arrival of HD but – rather controversially and, hopefully, they’ll soon stamp it out – but they broadcast the words in Low BS. In LBS, actual facts are mentioned! So, highly unusually, we do actually learn something new from Nigel – albeit only tangentially related to speedway, namely (apart from their glory in HD) these seats were bought from “Walthamstow Greyhound Stadium”!

When Rye House promoter Len Silver’s first interviewed, it’s impossible not to notice that he’s dressed for HD – even his always super smart hair looks more primped and bouffant tonight? Understandably enough, Len Silver proudly walks tall in the knowledge and glory of Sky’s decision to broadcast (in HD, has anyone mentioned that?) from his stadium. Initially, I’m also pleased that – without Kelvin – that the words that back up this new fangled HD Sky speedway coverage is much more ‘normal’ and restrained. When Kelvin has access to the microphone it must somehow egg Nigel on towards wilder flights of fancy and hyperbole that the on track action and the (HD or LD) pictures we get at home just don’t merit. By Wednesday night’s broadcast from Wimborne Road in Poole, normal HBS service has been resumed – so each and every turgid processional race or dull first bend overtake is relentlessly hammed up as the most amazing piece of speedway action every known to man. Sadly, HBS is the house style. If we apply the HBS approach to a domestic matter, say the delivery of the local free weekly advertising newspaper. If broadcast live on Sky, Kelvin & Nigel would compete with each other to hail this delivery as a cross between Moses coming down the mountain with the 10 Commandments mixed in with the invention of the printing press and the completion of the complete works of Shakespeare. We all understand that their job is to polish the product and falsely claim lustre even when it’s absent (or, even better, if it’s actually there).

In addition, the Sky contract to televise Elite League meetings means there’s a structural commercial need to hype the product since it’s their bread and butter for eight long, often turgid, months. So, for the meeting from Hoddesdon, rather than praise a competing attraction – say, the Premier League meeting from Rye House that you only show once in a blue moon – you underplay its importance in comparison with the EL product. Looked at cynically, this surely – along with staff absence – must have been a factor behind the low key LBS presentation we enjoyed. Even stranger, given the sheer number of suspect, dodgy or wet tracks that Sky’s televised racing from over recent years, is the criticism that Rye’s track came in for when barely a peep is usually heard about our regular diet of sub-optimal EL tracks.

This understatedness doesn’t seem quite fair on poor ole Leaping Len or, indeed, the quality of the Premier League product. On Monday you also could have been forgiven if you thought HD stood for Heavy Damnation as apparently everyone lined up to give the particular foibles, peculiarities and essential characteristics of the Hoddesdon track a good kicking. If the track is the stage, then the talking heads on Monday’s broadcast strongly gave the impression that few exactly relish the Rye House scenery. Damned with faint praise is almost as good as it got for Len’s circuit on a channel known for its excessive hyperbole and needless exaggeration! Before the ‘racing’ started, Nigel did confidently say, “the track looks absolutely perfect”. After that things went badly downhill commentwise about the track, its contours, the surface, the primacy of gating and the nature of the racing it usually provides quicker than a novice skier on one of Len’s Silver Ski holidays. There were numerous examples of this reverse HBS:
[Chris Louis] “Small and slick are the types of track Jason [Lyons] races best on”
[Graham Drury] “we’ve already seen that starts are vital at Rye House”
[Graham Drury] “at Rye House it’s all about engine set up and engine preparation – it’s renowned as a slick track and I’m sure Len Silver wouldn’t mind me saying that”
[Linus Sundstrom] “it’s very important to have a good jump ‘cause it’s so short to that corner”
[Chris Louis] “oh, Luke Bowen’s up over the edge {of bend 1 burm}”
[Steve Johnston] “seems to be one of those sort of tracks – not a lot of passing”
[Steve Johnston] “you’ve got to get out of the gate first. It’s much more important here than anywhere else!”
[Chris Louis] “I just think the outside isn’t going to work”
[Aaron Summers] “Yeh, Rye House isn’t my favourite track…the starts are so slick here”
[Justin Sedgmen] “it’s just been watered and it’s too slippery”
[Chris Louis] “it’s all about the start”
[Nigel Pearson] “once he took the lead he was never going to be caught”
[Nigel Pearson] “I think the home track advantage could swing things”
[Len Silver!] “I’ve got some new riders who haven’t weighed up their home track to get the advantage”
[Steve Johnston] “you can’t team ride at this track like you can at a lot of places”
[Steve Johnston] “I think everyone’s shown if you make starts you can win, you just need to get the damn thing out of the start!”
[Nigel Pearson] “Rye House are brilliant here!”

Should any new or lapsed Essex or Hertfordshire based fans have seen Rye House versus Birmingham on the telly and thought ‘gosh what a great evening out for the family’ or ‘blimey I didn’t know speedway was still on’. Then this sustained negativity is bound to give them immediate pause for thought or, worse still, stop them going full stop. Usually, getting your product on the telly results in greater demand not less. Monday’s night’s comments on the track were like reverse Viagra – damping ardour rather than boosting it. A couple of hours of explicit or implicit knocking comment certainly isn’t going to have anyone flocking through the turnstiles. Especially so when anything shown on this obscure satellite channel rarely garners negative editorial content of any type or description. Indeed, on almost all satellite telly, serious structural problems are usually presented as virtues (‘your pants are on fire’ becomes ‘you can save on your central heating costs’)

Complaints from the riders, commentary team or promoters, let alone those on the British Speedway Forum, that this was a slick, gaters track that serves up processional racing completely fails to acknowledge the 11 overtakes that the meeting served up for the fans in LiD (live definition), LD (low definition) and HD (high definition).

Another very noticeable and positive feature of the meeting is something Nigel always does effortlessly well (and in an engaging manner) – namely, effortless segues into mentions of other speedway leagues, clubs, news and forthcoming events. In a few brief minutes, Nigel managed to seamlessly mention Cardiff, the Super 7evens, Somerset, Glasgow, the PL pairs.

However, this triumph aside, the nature of live broadcast programming dictates that mistakes will be made and, rather enjoyably, strange phrases invariably escape.
[Nigel] “Graham Drury watching on, looking at his programme”
[Nigel] “it’s not just Birmingham where noise is a bit of big issue – it’s everywhere given the popularity of the sport that’s grown so much with Sky!”
[Nigel] “Birmingham look good on paper!” [Chris] “Yeh but we’re not riding on paper!”
[Nigel] “Leethan Ekberg”
[Chris] “Lee-nus Simpson”
[Nigel] “one of the sport’s characters – even wrote his own autobiography – well worth a read I’m sure!”

Some phrases Nigel uses are pre-prepared – old favourites like “Lyons ready to roar” and “he roared to victory” get trotted out like long lost friends whenever Jason ‘Lyonsy’ Lyons rides. On the subject of long lost friends. Nigel joyously welcomes Moley in similar fashion to Kelvin’s OTT greetings, apparently under the mistaken impression that Moley is a real, long lost but fondly remembered relative “a reminder that we are in HD throughout the season – as Moley’s reminding us there – great to have Moley back on board for the new campaign” If this is back on board, I’m a Dutchman since Nigel completely freezes poor ole Moley out for the rest of the meeting preferring instead to talk with Chris Louis. It also has to be said that Kelvin’s the only one to share a real rapport with Moley and their repartee together really does bring an extra dimension to Kelvin’s work and the coverage of the sport. I expect HD will enhance their relationship further. In Kelv’s absence, there’s also much less talk of set ups and engines. However, Graham Drury (“Yeh, the EF’s that have taken place on the track – we’ve had three engines go in the pits”), Jason Lyons (“I just noticed after the race that me bike had a bit of a rattle”) and Linus Sundstrom (“I try to do my best in the workshop and the track”) do try to redress the balance.

Charlie Webster is now in her second season in the pits and, unlike the close personal style of research undertaken by Suzi and Sophie, she’s sufficiently motivated to succeed in her work to attend non televised meetings (for example, the Ben Fund meeting recently held at Rye House). On the hoof, spur of the moment interviews are difficult to conduct with ease. Charlie’s certainly quick on her feet chasing round the pits, though this doesn’t provide much practice for her sponsored run in the London marathon for the domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid Foundation (sponsor her here). Mostly, Charlie succeeds though sometimes her usual run-sight-aim-fire technique is ignored in favour of run-first thought-fire-reflect
[To Chris Kerr] “Can I ask you what it’s like to be the only American in the Brummies team?” A: Apparently not an issue
[To Johno & Aaron] “You’re just having a chat away there together”
[To John Sampford] “You just put it perfectly – if you didn’t have an engine failure you’d have won”

One thing the 100,000 speedway subscribers still don’t appear to be is attractive to advertisers! Either the advertisers know we’re already spent up on the exorbitant monthly access charges (& HD flat screen tellies) or, alternatively, the viewer profile is much more CDE than AB. If you look for major product adverts during the commercial breaks, you’re going to wait a long time! However, come rain or shine, there’s always the guarantee that there will be endlessly repeated HBS adverts for the speedway extravaganza that is the Cardiff Grand Prix. It’s on slightly later this year (July 10) so we’ll all be exposed to the joys of the latest advert for longer than humanely necessary. Quite who the agencies are that BSI/IMG chose to produce these horror shows isn’t known though I expect not only are they cheap but, within the advertising industry, this brief is probably viewed as one step from a suicide note or unemployment. The clichéd nature of the visual images chosen finds an echo in the narrative voice chosen to say, “atmosphere like no other” and “pride passion drama”! Understandably, possibly for trade descriptions reasons, there’s no mention whatsoever of speedway – the product supposedly on show – or, indeed, racing. Nonetheless the horror film inspired voiceover brilliantly combines the theatricality of Monster Mash with the mock heroic beyond the grave intro voice from the Michael Jackson thriller video and leavens it all with the gravitas of the narrators usually found on straight to DVD slasher ‘B’ movie soundtracks. Once the formal adverts are over, the informal adverts for Cardiff – masquerading as informed comment – spill endlessly from Nigel and Kelvins mouths. Sadly, these puffs don’t sound any better in HD.

Like bald men fighting over a comb, Premier League fans and promoters are always keen to stress the superiority of the product they serve up a weekly basis compared to, say, that provided in the Elite League. Graham Drury makes a strong case, “both Rye House and ourselves have put on a Premier League meeting fans and Sky viewers can be proud of – we’ve got the best league – and, hopefully, fans will want to come and see us!” Cognisant that the staple Monday night fare is Elite League racing (and that he’d like regular work as co-commentator or pits colour man) Chris Louis closes the programme with a rather political HBS editorial summary surely mainly crafted with the producer rather than accuracy in mind. “Yeh, sure, Premier League is entertaining and they’ve put on a great show for us but the difference is the start and the professionalism!”

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One Response to HD adds lustre to seating, team suits and Sky revenues

  1. KTL
    April 19, 2010 at 7:47 am

    Good to have you back on the blog again Jeff!

    I can't deny the high BS factor when it comes to the Sky coverage, but I remember a time in the late 80's and early 90's when there was next to no speedway on TV at all.

    I have vague memories of a teenage David Norris appearing on an episode of "Why Don't You" but apart from maybe twenty minutes worth of recorded highlights from the years World Final on Grandstand, that was your lot.

    Although the continual flow of hype can be tedious and at times cringe worthy, the actual camera work and production standards on Sky's coverage are actually very high. For all Nigel Pearson's faults, he undoubtedly loves the sport, and we could do a lot worse (Tony Millard for instance…)

    Despite all the problems of the sport (and the hype can't mask the slick tracks and often boring racing) an awful lot of people would really miss regular speedway coverage on TV.

    Anyway Jeff, I am sure that you are looking forward to the start of the new SGP series this weekend.

    The BSI crew have probably just arranged their chartered luxury yacht (fishing boat) to take them across the channel, before their luxury motorhome (VW camper) takes them up to Leszno.

    Keep taking the tablets.

    Dave C

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