There are hours and hours of the Giro d’Italia on TV and some of the upcoming stages will be shown live from start to finish, a novelty for 2017. The Tour de France will have every single stage live on TV from start to finish too. It’s great but is it too much?
Why live from start to finish? It’s to do with the changing ways we consume television. Live TV is more compelling, just as many people watch rolling TV news channels to find out what is happening rather than wait for the evening bulletin and so live broadcasts from a race can bring in an expectant audience. Also even if little is happening during the race it can still be win for the broadcaster simply because if they didn’t show the race then the daytime slot would be filled by something that attracts lower ratings, for example a re-run of a 1980s TV detective series.
Sometimes the start of the stage is great to watch and the fight to get in the breakaway can be more compelling than the finish. But this is rare and occurs on identifiable transition stages with hilly routes, the kind where the sprinters teams won’t bother chasing because the finish isn’t for them. On a flat route where a sprint finish looks likely it’s self-reinforcing, the peloton knows a bunch is probable therefore few want to get away and the result is a handful of modest riders from a team issued a wildcard invitation go clear, in part hoping for some airtime for the brands on the jersey and because they were invited on the implicit understanding they’d go in these kind of moves, to attack when others won’t. They’re tasked with “animating” the stage but since they go clear without resistance from the peloton they’re simply pedalling along for hours on end. It’s the cycling equivalent of a still life painting, or John Cage’s 4’33” composition only it can last four hours and thirty minutes.
Even L’Equipe, which is promoting the race more than ever because it has bought the broadcast rights to show the race in France, titled yesterday’s stage as a sleepy affair. Boring? Yes but if you’ve decided to sit through five hours of this on a very likely sprint stage then that’s your choice. Having all this extra coverage for free requires some investment from the cycling fan to check whether the day’s stage is promising from an action point of view or not… luckily there are stage previews out there to help inform people. More importantly it requires having the self-discipline to ignore cycling on television and to work or go for a ride instead, or perhaps just have the TV on in the background, like radio.
This is problematic. If it’s your fault for being bored by hours of processional pedalling then this doesn’t say much for the sport. If cycling fans aren’t sitting down to watch a race then who will? Well one study from a few years ago showed the single largest component of the TV audience in France was made up of people tuning in for the scenery rather than the race. More worrying is that all these broadcast hours put off the public from watching cycling because it turns what is already a majestically slow sport into an even slower spectacle. Statistically the chances of someone turning on their TV to find nothing happening has increased with these extra hours. In reductive terms there’s an increased supply of cycling on TV but if the demand hasn’t increased then surely it just devalues the output?
Tail wags dog: the goal of a bike race is to cross the finish line first but if the whole stage is going to be on television then does the race need to be revised? For example to have more intermediate sprints with more time bonuses? That’s for another day but that day will surely come. Remember television is a driving force behind the races you watch today, whether the trend for shorter and more explosive mountain stages or spicing up stages by exploiting a climb, a finishing circuit, some cobbles or unpaved roads. If all-day broadcasting becomes a fixture then surely the race design will respond in time?
The Giro has to tour plenty of Italy, just as the Tour de France must cover as much of France as it can and so long stages are a fixture. Often the race belongs to the crowds and it’s important to remember that the chair or sofa isn’t the only vantage point, even if it a precious one. This year is bringing more and more television which is great but surely the luxury here is one of choice rather than coverage? We have the ability to watch but also to accept that some days are simply not going to make sitting down in front of the TV for hours on end worthwhile as a primary activity. On a wider level the increased number of hours may sound more flattering for a sport whose economics are based on viewing figures but if it’s showing more hours of nothing happening then it can devalue the content and frustrate the audience. Sometimes more is less.