Why was Paris-Roubaix live on TV from start to finish? Pose the question and the answer isn’t immediately obvious.
It’s to do with advertising, the media landscape in France and technology. More and more people are watching normal programs with a delay, either recording the show or using catch-up streaming services, says Daniel Bilalian, the head of sports at France Télévisions in an interview with L’Equipe’s print edition last Saturday.
Television advertising revenue is falling because people can skip over the ad breaks when they watch ordinary shows says Bilalian. By contrast sports events are “consumed” live and by implication people sit through the ad breaks making live events more valuable. Exceptional sports events like the Tour de France and the Olympics also act as rallying points says Bilalian, in that they bring new or returning viewers to France Télévisions – the broadcaster behind two of the three traditional channels in France – who then stay on for other shows, adding a percentage point or two to the channel’s market share ratings which means they can sell more ads at a better rate. In an era of fragmenting audiences with ever more channels on TV and other means to watch content, a long live production is a way to gain some extra viewers.
One unmentioned point from the interview is that there’s not much else on. Next Sunday afternoon’s schedule on France Télévisions sees repeats of Les Enquêtes de Murdoch, “The Murdoch Mysteries”, a dubbed Canadian TV detective series set in 18th century Toronto. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine playing in the background in retirement homes, hospital wards where patients have their limbs in traction and other places where people are unable to reach the remote. So it’s against the bland offering of the French television schedule that we should see this too.
According to La Voix du Nord, a newspaper, France Télévisions also looking at live coverage for the entire 2017 Tour de France: every stage from start to finish. Paris-Roubaix was a trial run. Some stages have been shown in their entirety in recent years but not all. 21 days means a big logistical effort and a hefty cost. Camera crews, commentary teams and production staff may have to be swapped mid-stage during the longer stages; yesterday’s Paris-Roubaix saw one team of motorbike riders cover the first 100km before handing over to a second crew for the rest of the race.
It’s an intriguing prospect because the demand to watch a bike race in its entirety is not obvious. Even loyal readers who land on a niche cycling blog may have better uses of their time in July so imagine what everyone else does while the peloton rolls across some featureless part of northern France and the only action for hours on end is the feedzone or a puncture for a notable rider.
However it’s probably worth it. Again it’s not just what you might want to watch, it’s a matter of what the alternatives are. The July TV schedules in France don’t offer much competition, the early afternoon slot midweek in France invariably has some repeat detective series like Kommissar Rex, an Austrian show featuring a crime-solving police pooch: a repeat from 10-20 years ago that’s dubbed is going to have a tiny audience. As such sport plays the same role as rolling news coverage, it’s not something you record to watch at a later date so it’ll be on in the background, people can have lunch with the television on in the background and enjoy the meal without having to follow every move of a detective dog for fear of missing a plot twist.
Whether Eurosport and international channels pick up isn’t certain. Eurosport’s model is based on live sport all the time and cycling is a core part of their offering so it’s very likely. But will others follow suit, for example will RAI, NBC, ITV, ARD et al follow? For them the costs are reduced, the image feed is there already and they “only” need to have the production and commentary crews but it’ll depend on their scheduling too, perhaps they have good audiences for the slot? It’s a commercial decision for them and while the French are evaluating whether it works for them, others have different priorities and revenues.
There could be second order effects. That early breakaway may be doomed but this time it’s going to be on TV for hours, meaning logos of Cofidis or Direct Energie are pumped into millions of homes for hours on end. Teams may dream of stage wins but can find consolation in this, as if to appear on TV is to exist. Was this already a feature of the lively first two hours of Paris-Roubaix? Probably but a factor among others such as team tactics, a crosswind and more. It’s quite possible that during a stage of the Tour de France all the wildcard teams send a rider clear in the first attack and that’s it for the day, no battle. It’s happened a lot in recent years.
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.
– Pat McQuaid, March 2011
If the early start of the race is procedural then the production may have to change too. It was Daniel Bilalian who sat down with former UCI President Pat McQuaid for lunch and told him to get rid of race radios because he feared they were making the race boring and it’s the TV age that gives us those short, explosive stages in the mountains and condemns the time trial because their audience ratings stink. So if TV is already influential in the rules and the route, perhaps it will insist on more intermediate sprints and create topographical alchemy, turning canal bridges in King of the Mountains points. Something needs to happen during a dull stage although we’ve seen many a breakaway nonchalantly roll through an intermediate sprint too.
There’s also a contemporary logic to it all, it is strange for a major sports event to have only partial coverage. An incident early in the stage is a textual matter appearing on the race website’s live feed and Twitter but there’s no video. Can you imagine football, tennis or golf saying “tune in for the last hour of the match” and not being able to show some crucial event that happened off-air? The more you think about it the more covering an entire stage seems essential. Perhaps a lot of the time nothing much is happening but it’s having images of the moments when things happen that matters.
It works both ways: just as you’re watching a live event on TV the broadcaster knows it has a live audience. This is valuable and the reason Paris-Roubaix was on TV for seven hours was because it suits the host broadcaster in France. It’s an experiment and Sunday’s viewing figures looked supportive with 1.6 million watching in France, an audience share of 14.5%, higher than average, a decent result. Better than quantity is the quality, an audience for live events won’t channel hop or fast-forward past the ad breaks, unlike those watching via replay, catchup and other delayed means. Expect this to be repeated at the 2017 Tour de France for French viewers and Eurosport will likely take up the mantle too.
Roubaix TV Photo credit: Thomas Sweertvaeger from the Belgian book “Supporters Leven Voor de Koers” via the publisher’s media pack