French TV execs ask UCI for the impossible

Daniel Bilalian, director of sports at France Télévisions

Amidst the recent chatty and rambling letter sent by UCI President Pat McQuaid to riders was a reference to the influence of television:

I was convened to a meeting with the biggest producer of television images of cycling, France Television, and was told by senior executives clearly that if radios were retained in cycling and used as they were being used that the coverage of cycling on television would be reduced.

It’s no secret that TV is crucial to the sport. Hours of airtime are what bring in sponsors and in turn the spectacle presented to TV viewers has to be worthy of their attention. Absolute viewing figures are crucial, ie how many millions tune in, but also “share of the audience” metrics, ie of those watching TV at any one time, how many are watching the bike race. Riders might complain about lengthy transfers in some races, especially the Giro, but the mouthwatering stages only exist because the race convoy skips the duller parts of the Italian topograhpy. In short, TV is king.

Yet as powerful as television may be, it’s rare to see a direct influence. The idea of TV executives effecting rule changes on the UCI seems to be a first. But I can’t help wondering if the TV executives are asking for the impossible. As we’ve seen this year, the use or not of radios simply doesn’t correlate with the excitement of a race.

Yes, teams shutting down a breakaway for the advantage of their sprinter can make for dull TV. But to blame the radios for this… well I hope nobody does. No, what needs to be done is to have some more exciting stage finishes. It’s here that the geography of France gets in the way. France might be full of history, charming villages and fine food but large parts of the country are quite flat. You have hours of airtime where there’s nothing to see.

Ride on the right
Big ring territory to the west of the line

Roughly speaking anywhere to the west of the red line is flat. Now this is an obvious exaggeration, hold back from the comments section for now. It’s just that I could draw a 150-200km stage any where to the east of the red line that should favour breakaways. Yet the Tour de France can’t stick to Alps, Pyrenees and Massif Central alone. The bunch can easily chase down breakaways on long flat roads, it’s not because of radios.

In other words, surely the excitement factor is something beyond the UCI’s reach, short of banning sprint stages? Even Tour de France organisers ASO will struggle because the race has to tour the country, even if it relies on the Alps and Pyrenees.

The central part of France might include some good climbs but it’s unpopulated and local towns can’t justify the price for a Tour finish. The obvious answer is to readjust ASO’s tariffs, or if not, for French TV to start subsidising towns who promise a tasty finish. That way a small town on top of a hill can host a stage whilst the TV viewer gets an exciting uphill battle to the finish line. Perhaps also to put the stages on later, maybe limited to 150km but with the finish timed for a primetime slot at 7pm? The advertising revenue would be significantly higher.

Tro Bro Leon
Not Roubaix or Flanders but Britanny: the Tro Bro Leon

Another opportunity would be to take in new roads. If the area to the west of my red line above is flat, it’s full of farmland and forest. It would not be hard to include some offroad sections, to copy the Giro’s use of strade bianche. This is already done in the Tro Bro Léon race in Britanny.

I’d also like to see the race tackle new climbs. Every year we see the same mountain passes and you’d think this is all France has. But the Alps and Pyrenees have many more roads. Some are more narrow but you can get cars up them no problem. A double digit gradient means the race blows apart.

Bike race vs. circus show
Yet there’s a circus element to some of this. Riders can’t be made to “perform” every day on narrow roads, farm tracks and roads so steep some vehicles struggle. A late stage finish means going to bed even later. Plus there’s an aspect of inflation. In times past the public would wow at riders doing 200km in a day, now TV demands more. Add more climbs or muddy tracks and surely in a decade people will take this for granted? Riders already feel put upon, there is probably no harder sporting even than the Tour already, making it tougher verges on insanity but the flipside is to reduce the stage length, you don’t need anything longer than 200km in the final week.

TV can also achieve more itself. French TV production is a decade behind other countries when it comes to sports coverage, whether technically or analytically. I’d like to see some better filming and use of technology. On-bike cameras don’t work too well but live GPS graphics could show the actual gaps better; when riders tackle a climb an caption could show the gradient and the distance to the top of the climb. The finish line cam on the Champs Elysees is great. Why not install this at every finish or mount a camera on wires to film the aerial view of the final 500m of a bunch sprint?

Le Dopage
One reason for drops in audience numbers is the persistent theme of doping. Many don’t tune in because they don’t believe what they’re seeing. What’s the point in watching a stage for five hours if the result is overturned by a lab or an arbitration panel? Everyone is aware of this but I’m still not convinced people are working hard enough. The UCI seems inconsistent at times. The TV stations need to do their bit too, maybe to get a camera crew “embedded” in a team so they can show what the riders go through. Indeed, letting a few have an “access all areas” pass would go some way to showing the human side of the race. Showing what they guys eat for breakfast to how they spend the evenings would dismiss the “lab rat” perception held by some.

Aux manivelles, citoyens
The biggest boost France Télévisions could hope for is a winning Frenchman. A rider who is in with a serious shout of the overall win would have the French glued to their TV sets and the state broadcaster would be asking how they could repeat the race, not how they could re-jig things.

It’s interesting to think the current dispute over race radios has its genesis in the Parisian offices of the French state TV company. As a result race in Beijing could get canned by a boycott. This is chaos theory in action and largely because the UCI has not properly consulted and communicated. There’s still been no evidence presented to suggest radios makes racing any worse.

For my part French TV and ASO could work together to make the race better viewing, there are plenty of avenues to explore and some of this is being done already. The UCI is neither here nor there. Indeed, it would better to restrict the UCI to its core role of enforcing existing rules rather than making fresh changes. Stopping the turf wars with the French anti-doping agency would be good and a more consistent approach to anti-doping would be better. The UCI needs to focus on its core job and let ASO focus on staging the show.

For all the talk about making racing more exciting, radios appear here nor there. But vast amounts of political capital and goodwill are being used up over this debate, wedges are being driven between various groups within the sport and yet it will probably go unnoticed by the casual French TV viewer who turns on the TV on during Sunday lunchtime. All this debate and nobody outside the sport will notice anyway.

27 thoughts on “French TV execs ask UCI for the impossible”

  1. Great post. The use of technology to enhance viewing is an excellent point. It was best illustrated for me during last year’s ATOC. The quality of picture, but above all sound was way ahead of anything coming from euro providers. We could hear freewheels clicking, chatting in the peleton, shifting, brakes on carbon, . . . a small example of how much better it could be an d a bit compliment to those providing that coverage.

  2. The ASO should look at how RCS has changed the Giro in the last few years and learn from both their successes and their mistakes. You only have to compare this years Paris-Nice against Tirreno-Adriatico to see how their styles differ. Yes there are long transfers and narrow finishes but the riders still turn up and compete and it makes for much more exciting racing. It would be great to see some of the fortified French towns like Laon used for a race finish.

  3. Is there a reason why they can’t use criterium style stages or even use loops of a closed-road c.30km circuit? I take the point that a lot of France is ‘flat’, but in almost every region there will be smaller hills, narrower twisty-technical roads, off-camber descents etc that would make for exciting racing. I don’t think that the crash hazard would be markedly increased (especially compared with early stages in the Netherlands…) and there would be a much more dense crowd to add to the nature of the spectacle. Some decent time-primes and finish bonuses could even help enliven the GC race, perhaps moving the GC contender away from the skinny mountain goat and towards a more all-round rider. The pros all need the practise to make all those post-Tour kermesses bearable!

    Maybe we’ll see how the 9 laps of Box Hill in the Olympic road race works out – both in terms of audience and coverage – before insisting on inclusion of these kind of stages.

    On a separate note, do you know how they’re going to get the helicopter shots in the race? A little birde tells me that the majority of the course is underneath one of the Heathrow approach flightpaths…

  4. IR, I am not pointing fingers at you, but all we have is a claim from McQuaid that a meeting took place and TV coverage would be reduced. Where is the citation from Daniel Bilalian or another executive at France Télévisions backing up this claim? Do they have the metrics that show viewership and share are down?

    Furthermore, cycling needs to have balance. If there were no field sprints, people would also complain. There is something magical and colorful about field sprints that make them great to watch, and so different than almost every other sport. Is there empirical evidence that there are more field sprints now than there were a few years ago? And if so, what is the correlation to TV viewership?

    Is there a difference in viewership between stage races and 1 day races?

    And if people want excitement in racing/TV coverage, what are the ratings for TT stages vs road events? For me nothing is more boring than watching 1 rider at a time, regardless of the terrain.

    Clearly France can improve their TV coverage with technology. The Belgians seem to do best with on screen metrics. But this is just window dressing. If viewership is down, they need to know reasons why. Maybe it is radios, or ,maybe it is because there are other things more appealing on, or because their target audience is no longer available or has shifted.

    Everyone needs to embrace new media. If it affects newspapers and magazine, it is going to affect TV too. Figure out a way of getting coverage on-line (with commercials or subscriptions (to maintain revenue) to reach a wider audience, and offer on-demand viewing and highlights, so that you can reach audiences that are not available to watch live. I believe these changes will have greater influence on audiences than changing terrain or finish towns.

  5. Roxanne / pat: thanks.

    benDE: the sound is a particular thing that bugs me. You can often hear the moto cameraman and his driver talking, in fact they’re often swearing. It’s very distracting. I’d like to hear rims squeal, gears click as, yes, these are the real sounds of the bunch.

    Gavin Long: I agree but the Italian geography lends itself to a sprint finish one day, a hill top finish the next. It’s harder in France although there are examples as you say like Laon.

    Yorkie: a hilly circuit could be good but it means less distance travelled across France I suppose. As for the Olympics, I think this was mentioned by the Real Peloton podcast recently. Moto only or perhaps they could use a very low flying “drone” camera.

    Touriste-Routier: I’ve asked someone and there have been frequent meetings, lunches etc. I’ve seen the viewing figures and they’re slowly coming back up after a slide in recent years and scandals. As for one day races vs stage races, the difference is more weekend vs weekday when more people will tune in to watch at the weekend; that’s why the % share of total TV viewers is important when the numbers are down midweek. French coverage has been good and I salute the use of several motos and a squadron of helicopters and aircraft but they could improve more.

  6. I’m starting to get really worried about the TV and JV’s rumblings about F1, particularly after James Murdoch has been hosted buy ASO as well.
    As much as I think that the UCI is Shambolic I’m increasingly concerned of the teams trying to make off with racing and then selling it off to TV coverage to the highest bidder (Most likely SKY). We may get better quality of coverage but at what price. I’d rather have the idiosynchratic continental broadcasters feeds disributed by Eurosport for really a very modest annual fee, rather than having to contend with rather than a SKY Sports subscription fee with the cycling being likely tied into a an expensive package that covers a huge amount of broadcasting I don’t want.
    Radios are really a diversion I don’t think they are a huge influence on racing or on safety each side want very different things for the race and if it wasn’t this issue they’d have come to loggerheads about something else. AIGCP saying they’ll boycott the Chinese race is a convenient position as I can’t see anyone being interested in it late season, it’s potentially stupid though as they risk alienating the largest new market available to cycling. JV is really looking forward to the F1 position but he seems to forget how little influence the teams really have there.

  7. The debate on race radios is a red herring.
    I think doping should be an important part of coverage as long as it as prevalent as it has been (and so clearly still is) in the peloton. No coverage about it (a la Phil and Paul) is way worse for the sport long and short term than too much (if there is such a thing).
    And this leads me to the following remark: there are no French winners of multi-stage races or Grand Tours because in France doping is an actual crime (a law passed named after the communist minister of sport who drafted it after the Festina affair) and unlike, say Spain the federation there won’t protect dopers. Nor will the press (unlike say, in the US). So if it is all about more revenue, and more ratings, and more advertising then let’s keep the focus on doping (and by that I don’t mean Saint JV once a great defender of Landis btw — but when Landis was lying) — if not no French cyclist will win the Tour (or Paris-Nice for that matter) ever again, and that apparently would not be good for business.

  8. I don’t pay a great deal of attention to F1 but isn’t it the poster child for a) complaints about it being dull, especially to non-fans and b) teams having to acquiesce to rules imposed with no input from teams.

    Swapping Pat for Bernie would not be an improvement for the teams.

    On the technology front Matt Rendell’s talked about the applicability of the player highlighting technology they use in some football coverage for picking out riders. It’s really easy to imagine this being used when analysing bunch sprints, or even significant moments in breakaways.

  9. Champs: yes ASO advise on the production there.

    Raouligan: yes, the radio debate is a Trojan Horse issue to push back the UCI and get control over the sport, including revenues. The trouble is that the teams only have value when ASO selects them.

    Oliver: it’s not just the criminal aspect. French teams enjoy near-guaranteed entry into the Tour de France. It means there’s no pressure for results as even a failed breakaway and a post-race interview on a stage justifies the sponsor’s money. Also note ASO made a small fortune from Armstrong’s rise, selling TV rights to the US audience is increasingly valuable. But what’s good for ASO isn’t always good for France Télévisions.

  10. I agree with Oliver….the race radio ban is a red herring being used by the riders to distract from the serious issues at hand, and pushed by DS’s afraid of being made less relevant to the actual races. I can only imagine part of Bruyneel and JV’s selling point to sponsors (and to their own egos each time they lay down to sleep) is that their mastery of cycling tactics are a big part as to why their teams are successful.

    I also agree that I would rather deal with the monster we know (UCI) than the monster we do not (some private cycling association, not controlled by an organization linked to Olympic competition standards).

  11. “Production
    TV can also achieve more itself.”

    I’ve always thought cycling coverage needs more info displayed, similar to how Formula 1 has info overlaid on the screen. When the camera is following one particular driver a whole load of info about that driver is shown… what speed he’s travelling at, what place he’s in, how many laps he has left, even what gear he’s in. Info from the riders’ SRM cranks would be useful for this

  12. Champs, I was aware that it was a ASO show going on at the ATOC but the production of television AV was Kilometers (miles) apart. If anyone knows for a fact who was behind it and why it is not (yet) being replicated in Europe please share. Did any one else notice the difference? maybe I was just a little homesick on a rainy day in europe. It never rains in sunny california . . .. .

  13. Colorado Goat: yes, it’s the Trojan Horse and if the UCI bungles things, I’m worried about some having designs on the sport that aren’t open to potential conflicts of interest but are nakedly commercial grabs at the money available.

    Lee: that’s true for you and me but don’t forget most viewers just want to see the countryside or watch the man to man combat on a mountain pass. Perhaps the use of digital TV and the internet could let some fans tune in to this whilst letting others just watch the race or scenery.

  14. Just following up on what you said about the US rights becoming more valuable. How does that tie in with emerging cycling markets? As much as a race in Beijing might reach a few hundred thousand people in China, how is the race distributed globally? Surely beaming the biggest cycle race of the year into hundreds of millions of homes, even at cost would be good for cycling and the UCI?

  15. Ronan: many in the US are cycling fans and there’s the widespread popularity of Lance Armstrong, especially in his early years (let’s not debate him too much) which meant a big demand to watch the sport. I’ve not seen anything to suggest millions of chinese TV viewers are impatient to watch the next Tour de France. But the Tour is the “window” for the sport and it does get broadcast around the world. It’s here that the sport is being supplied as opposed to demand. It’s the demand for TV rights that brings in the cash.

  16. Interesting article and there’s no doubt that cycling on TV could be done even better. The up-close/behind the scenes stuff would be a great area to look at.

    WRT the UCI and French TV – sounds to me like McQuaid is trying to get someone else to blame for a decision that he can’t explain/justify/sell. Sadly, another chapter of half-facts, opaque justification and innuendo. The UCI approach to pro road cycling continues to make F1 management look like pillars of truth and altruism.

  17. On ridercams, the technology exists in the right size kit and with the relevant image stabilisation available so that images don’t suffer bike wobble or road buzz. Trust me, I’ve seen this stuff demonstrated, ironically enough in for potential use in F1. I’ve seen saddle mounted cameras used on a few minor French races as well, perhaps a couple of seasons ago.

    The Champs Elysees cam, was actually pretty ingenius from memory: Moto with cameraman on back going up the other side of the circuit. I watched them rehearse that shot dozens of times before the race came through and watched it from the press area.

    As for pay TV. Unlikely given that rate cards for advertising are based on audience size and share. It’s why Ecclestone’s always tried to keep F1 on free-to-air. Advertisers want to reach the biggest audience, and cycling is an advertiser driven sport in the same way as F1, not like football.

    Also, we’re talking about national events of significance to their domestic audience. Governments usually take a dim view of such things going behind a paywall. The Giro and Tour are essentially high speed international tourist brochures.

    The ATOC coverage was more than just advised by ASO from what I remember hearing. I’m pretty certain the moto crews were the same as the TDF ones. They tried a few more things but actually it was same kit it was being shot on (HD at 1080), possibly with more directional mics, although I suspect they were using separate bikes solely for audio with the big dish type mics.

  18. PT: for sure, the letter was long and this issue about TV was only one item amongst many.

    Alex: the new cams could be good. I’m with you on the idea of a paywall not working, sponsors are coming into the sport to showcase their brand, not to hide. Organisers want the maximum audience and as you say, these races are shared cultural events. In the abstract, the Tour de France belongs to France as much as ASO.

    xyxax: an idea for the future, thanks.

  19. All this talk about TV made me think about how often I watch TV nowadays. Why am I reading kickass blogs instead 😉 ?

    Last year, I think I watched 1 or 2 stages of le Tour on crappy OLN [which got dropped for 2011]. Why waste my time now – when there’s instant gratification on youtube,, or just reading the race reports? As someone who actually tries to ride a bike for 8-10h, while working 9-5 for 5d – there’s not much time to sit and enjoy a Queen stage. I have no idea what its like on the other side of the pond, but I find with technology providing easier/quicker access to the information I need – the less I feel like I need to consume through usual outlets.
    All the big stations here in North America provide streaming [sometimes for free], all the re-caps I need, and mobile apps for reading. As one of the posters mentioned, if French TV is so behind on the tech curve – is their incompetence an excuse for trying to manipulate the standards of racing?
    Sooner or later – people will want the 30s, 5min, 20min recap of a stage – and really that’s all one needs to see. Unfortunately, there’s only so many ways you can sex up tempo riding up a 20km pass. I love all things PRO – but I got better things to do than watch some B race in some small town in the middle of nobodysville.

    Keep up the fantastic blogging.

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