More is Less

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.

47 thoughts on “More is Less”

  1. As long as they continue to allow race radios in the pro peloton many stages will be totally boring. I covered the Tour de France for 11 years. Now, when I watch the race on TV at home if it is not a mountain stage I just fast forward to the last 10km or so. It is just too boring to watch, even with great commentating. The sport is killing itself in oh, so many ways!

    • Yes, but look how often rider’s were being injured and even dying in the old days, over things that could have been prevented if they’d had radios. Who wants to go back to that?

      (Note: I don’t know enough about the old days to say how exactly all those riders were being hurt and how radios have prevented those tragedies, but we’re assured radios are all about safety, so it must have been so…).

      • I have been covering cycling for 38 years and can tell you that there were not more injuries and deaths before race radios. Think about it. A rider who wants to keep his contract can’t move unless the DS on the race radio says so. That same DS has access to the race’s race radio as well as TV coverage right there in the team car. The DS knows exactly what is going in the race as soon as it happens. That’s the formula for controlled racing.

        • Thank you, Bruce. I’m an “old guy” and have seen the same changes second hand, over the tele and now the internet.

          Race radios are especially effective at turning a race into a well-timed procession during stage racing.

    • Ok, we can’t go into detailed race radio debate… but you can’t honestly say that there would be non-stop attacking or the race would inherently change with no race radios.

      A long steady transition stage would still be a long steady transition stage.

  2. Very simple. It’s about riders, DS, and organisers to completely renouncing the paradigm of controlled racing, and embracing the idea of chaotic racing every day. Once the mindset is changed and the idea of permanent chaos and unpredictabilty is embraced and accepted, the rest is just the details of implementing it, finding ways to support it. No need to broadcast all day long, but the need for chaos is clearer and clearer.

    • Unfortunately, I can’t see any way how you can force teams to ride in a manner that is less likely to produce a win for them.

      • At least they will understand they can not complain if organisers (and regulators) make them ride in conditions thay make it impossible to control the race.

  3. Interesting that a lot of people tune in the scenery I guess it is a form of slow TV that has become popular in recent years.

    If I watch stages live (which is rare due to work and family commitments) it is normally on in the background where I dip in and out of it similar to how I watch test cricket and will get more engrossed if something interesting is happening or it is a particular point on the route where it is likely something will happen.

    I have enjoyed seeing more live data from riders showing power, speed and heart rate, it could be developed even more with the presentation of the product and give people who aren’t avid cycling fans a better understanding of effort they’re putting in.

    Race tactics and the mentality of the riders dictate how they’ll race and there are a great deal of factors that go into that. Look at the route on Tuesday – on paper it should have kicked off the battle for GC but the main contenders were happy to just mark each other out without launching a significant attack for fear it could be fruitless and lose out to their rivals.

    • Thank you for mentioned test cricket. The first thing that sprung to my mind whilst reading the article. Cycling is being turned into test cricket! 5 days the Gras is growing and then there may or may not be a winner. Definitely less is more. The same goes for cycling. It makes perfect sense in the one day classics where often a well timed attack early on can have huge influence in the final result. Case in point Matt Hayman in PR 2016. Ironically also the first ever full live telecast. But in a 3 week stage race every stage live?? We’re definitely getting to cricket syndrome right there! Limit it to full live stages to the big mountain stages on weekends only. At least actual fans will be able to watch. I for one am totally fine tuning in with 100 to go and the 2.5hour of actual racing it provides.

  4. There may be more hours of cycling on TV, but here in Spain the Giro is not available on terrestrial free to air tv, unlike the last two years, due to the exclusive sale of the tv rights in Europe to Eurosport.
    Hence there will be less people watching, which means less exposure for the sponsors, and less interest in the race.

  5. The Giro started with great audience results in Italy, the best in the last ten years (and it’s just that I didn’t collect data before that). They’re doubling the figures of 2007 or 2012.
    It’s mainly due to the all around investment to bring the Giro event into the still unaware masses ^__^

    But I’m indeed worried that with such a slightly dull edition this sudden TV success might prove counterproductive. A lot of people are seeing that cycling can actually be as boring as they always suspected! (and they aren’t the kind of fans who look for preview or understand the charm of slowburning tension).

    OTOH, there’s a brutal *reality show* effect: the interest is in “something real being on TV, whatever may that be”! Then, people complaining because their town, some 130 kms away from the finish line, during a dead calm racing phase, wasn’t shown live because RAI gave space to the studio “debate”… and I’ve been reported by acquaintances in Italy that many are indeed watching to see the country from a helicopter, the crowds and that kind of things.

    The long broadcasts are a bit of an unknown terrain for the TV producers, I think that nobody really knows what we might expect as the final result on the sport.

    (In foreign countries, selling to Eurosport has perhaps limited the viewers to the most hardcore fans, but results aren’t made public by ES; in France, where on the contrary it went free for the first times in years, this Giro has gathered until now very respectable audience results, even notable ones if you consider that we’re speaking of a private, recently established specialist channel)

    • Is there more hype than usual, given that this is the 100th Giro? If so, might that have affected early viewing figures?

      I know what you mean about people tuning in to have their worst preconceptions about cycling confirmed.

      • Sure, but a good deal of work was done to generate that hype. The new property used pretty well its know-how in that sense.
        The problem is that you must live to the hype…
        I just saw yesterday’s (Italian) TV figures and they’re disappointing.
        I’m afraid that tomorrow I’ll check today’s and see that this stage hadn’t scored high, either (just guessing).
        It’s interesting that the Messina stage had a way better audience result than Terme Luigiane, both on working days: it’s peculiar because normally the stages which are bound to finish in a bunch sprint don’t get great TV audience, and, in that sense, Terme Luigiane might have fared better. A Nibali effect in Messina? Or just an ongoing downward trend?

        • Update: Friday’s flat stage had a *normal* audience in Italy, that is, not exceptionally good as the first weekend, but not as disappointing as Terme Luigiane, either. I’m afraid I really can’t understand what “people” do indeed like 🙂
          A breakaway stage with a final ramp should be expected to offer at least some interesting racing aspect when compared with a no-chance sprinter stage where you can watch the last 15′ and be absolutely fine… Well, apparently it doesn’t work like that.

    • Here in Canada I WISH that cycling would get some coverage on our TV or even commentary on our sports radio.

      As it currently stands, today’s sports radio was obsessed with debating if Alexander Ovechkin would be traded from Washington Capitals to the Toronto Maple Leafs… brutal. The hockey season for Leaf fans doesn’t start for 6-months!

      Anyways, I wish the sports radio would discuss the day’s European race (just give updates or something) as it would provide some good discussion on a current sports event. The timing would be perfect because it would be during our morning/mid-day when sports radio is so repetitive.

      • Alexander Ovechkin to Maple Leafs?
        Holy cow! Now we talk.;)
        Try to find something about the Giro where I live…in Sweden.
        Okay, a short notice in the papers the day after, and the first 10 in GC.
        We share the probs as the guy in Spain regarding the Giro, Eurosport.
        TDF will be shown on a free channel…was at least last year.

        Allez Pinot!

      • This is where the internet and podcasts become your best choice for cycling media. That’s about as good as it gets right now.

        Going forward, both gooogl and facingbook have live media capabilities so, it should not take too long for a podcast to go live, if it hasn’t already.

  6. I don’t see what the problem is. I’ll take seeing so-called boring stages over nothing at all any day. Some of us are old enough to remember days before we could flick on the pirate feed for 5 hours and had to read about what happened in the paper the next day.

    In short, first world problems.

    • There’s a lot to this. And never mind reading next day’s paper, how about reading brief stage reports in next week’s copy of The Comic accompanied by a couple of monochrome photographs?

      Last week, idle curiosity and some sense of obligation to tip the hat at least a little to the celebration of 100 Giri had me flicking through its reports of 1972’s race.

      Little action. A hot favourite who won easily and bossed the race. Most stages were run off at little more than touring speeds apparently. In a word, boring.

      Must have been the race radios to blame. If only they had embraced the utter simplicity of permanent chaos. What were they thinking?

      • The “golden era” was probably very boring to watch especially if we had today’s coverage but I suspect it was more limited, for starters few people had TV:

        When Fausto won and you wanted to check the time gap to the man in second place, you didn’t need a Swiss stopwatch. The bell of the church clock tower would do the job just as well. Paris–Roubaix? Milan – San Remo? Lombardy? We’re talking 10 minutes to a quarter of an hour. That’s how Fausto Coppi was
        – Raphaël Géminiani, CycleSport Magazine, 1996

        Great to read about, follow on the radio or see from the road but probably not great TV.

        • By all accounts, the “golden era” (pick your decade from the last 100) WERE very boring. In the 1960’s through the 80’s the peloton had patrons who influenced when the actual racing began on the day. There is more than one account of the racing beginning only when the broadcast helicopters showed up.

          But, these tended to be much longer distances as well without revolutionary recovery methods like hgh and epo and whatever weight loss meds that still deliver the power.

  7. I’ve been on holiday to places in France and Italy because of TV coverage during grand tours. Don’t knock the value of those watching for the scenery!

  8. Just watch the 4 days of Dunkirk, the two last stages were really exciting. Maybe because it contains a lot of Chavanel.

  9. I must say I like watching the scenery as well as the cycling, though I recognise that is likely to be a minority view. It is much the same as watching test cricket, there are often long periods when it appears not much is happening but in fact having a sporting contest that takes such a long time is what makes it so engrossing.

    I doubt there are many people who watch the whole thing everyday and the additional cost of producing the pictures is fairly minimal ( a bit more helicopter time and a few other bits and pieces) so why not. I can see however how the demands of TV will impact on the races in the future. Not sure this is always a good thing, cricket is very much an example of this.

  10. For me, there are two, maybe three questions here sort of crammed into one.

    (1) what would make the races more exciting to watch? that presumes they are not exciting enough now. I don’t know that that’s the case. There have been a couple of winners of Giro stages from the early breaks. I mean, Merckx is retired, so there is no point it musing on how it would be more “interesting” if somehow the GC favorites attacked on flat stages. Ban race radios? Meh. The total insider thing where you not only watch the race but watch for some of the racers “not knowing” what’s going on is not going to help draw new fans. I frankly saw something very easy to do and I’m not sure the Giro did it on purpose. Have the end of a flat stage with enough turns and narrow roads so that sprint trains cannot form, or at least make it more difficult for them to form. It doesn’t affect the other hours but it does mean that the winner is not simply the sprinter in the best form.

    (2) Does it follow that the early hours of a stage where “nothing” is happening are “not interesting?” Why so? Depending upon the stage sometimes you can’t win the race but you can lose it. Its an endurance sport. I don’t see anything remotely wrong about watching for the scenery prior to the finish. Grand tours require long stages. Sure you can have shorter races but those already exist in some other format. One day classics are long but because they are only one day they have that aspect.

    (3) what effect does televising the whole race have on (1) and (2)? None. The ratings will dictate the hours of coverage. Plus, at some point the actual stream is not much more expensive: i.e., if you’re going to televise 2 hours might as well televise 5 hours.

    • The only thing I’d add is the decision to broadcast so much cycling isn’t just ratings. There is a complex economic model behind the scenes that might make live cycling more economically sensible than filling the broadcast time with re-runs.

      Similar economics apply to the sweeping shift to reality TV shows. No unions producing the shows, no residuals, no studios, no actors who bring an audience with them to pay. It’s a big economic win for the broadcaster. It turns out people tune in to very non-traditional shows. Cycling could be another reality tv type product if the owner of the media rights packages it well.

  11. I love watching the geographical and cultural topography for hours. It is a journey through the country. I Google the history and the architecture as the peloton move through it. It enriches me. Road cykling to me is 50% sports action and 50% the natural and cultural topograhy it moves through, one day or GTs

  12. The saying ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ comes to mind.

    The Giro so far has not been the most exciting race to watch for hours on TV. Why ? Seems there are several reasons. 1. As always the course and conditions are important factors. The first week has been dominated by reasonably flat roads, and winds that have been generally head or tail. With the one notable exception when cross winds came into play close to the finish. 2. There appears to be an agreement between teams that wildcard teams should be allowed to have decent exposure. This results in riders with little hope being given 3 – 6 minutes lead, whilst the Pro Tour teams content themselves by simply riding along with little interest in proceeding until 30k to the finish. 3. Radios – been done to death. If they are for ‘safety’ then let the commissaires have one way contact with riders. If they are mainly for DSs to try and control the outcome, they have no place. A good rider uses both his legs and his head. Without both he is no longer a real rider.

    It’s good to see the increased coverage and sponsors should feel well rewarded. Teams, especially Pro Tour teams have to step up to the plate with some aggressive and undisciplined racing if coverage in the long term is to be guaranteed.

    • There appears to be an agreement between teams that wildcard teams should be allowed to have decent exposure.

      That has always been the case. They go early and the peloton knows the riders doing the suicide mission cannot, on most days, “steal” the day’s podium. Race radios make this even easier to control.

  13. This might be sacrilege to some but ive always wondered why cycling didnt go down the racing on a circuit route. Surely a two hour race round somewhere like spa would be more action packed, have spectators that paid to be there and tv coverage would be more of a spectacle rather then 5 or 6 hours when it can feel the same as watching paint dry on a slow stage.

    • Hey, hey, wait, I’ve got an even better idea: and if you do that on a shorter track, so that you can make it indoor and race by night or in winter, too, and have music, and beer, and you can place cameras everywhere, and a lot of intermediate sprints to shake things up, and several events on the same night, and maybe some motorbike, too, superfast, supertechnical, super action-packed…

      Ouch, I just tried to go and patent it but they told me that it’s called “track racing”.

      Well, I thought, let’s take away the indoor element… and they told me to look for “cyclocross” (action packed, about one hour long, head-to-head among the best, super-spectacular).

      Finally, I even discovered that several races are held on a circuit every year (Plouay, the Canadian races, many National Champioships) and one of them is also called “World Championship”.
      Apparently, nothing prevent them from working like any other race. Yeah, these are longer than two hours, but if you don’t appreciate the endurance element, the above mentioned discipline might be the best fit for you.

    • Because a two-hour race wouldn’t provide any kind of selection and thus road racing would be ruined.
      Gabriele has pointed out the other options available, but also it would seem like your problem could be solved simply by watching the last two hours.
      On a general note, I’m happy that they’re showing more. I’m not watching it at the moment, because if nothing is happening then I don’t consider it a good use of my time. But many do and I can just keep an eye on what’s happening and then tune in for the last hour. Once the racing is interesting I can watch more. (And there’s also Dunkerque at the moment.)

  14. I usually record the stage and watch a few hours later than live. If nothing much is happening fast forward. Watch the bits where there is action.

    A 5-hour broadcast can be watched in perhaps 90 minutes. I often catch up with live for the last bit and don’t miss anything significant.

    I love the countryside scenery as well.

  15. Is sometimes get the feeling on here that its “paralysis by analysis” leading to the ultimate, What’s the point of cycling at all? Give me a full stage any day, nothing better! People are spoiled these days, I remember when the Giro meant catching a few lines in a magazine probably a week after the event with maybe, maybe, a picture or two!

  16. Doesn’t seem too long ago I was reading things like “Geez, why can’t they show more of the race on TV?” Or if you were in France, “Why can’t they show the Giro on TV, especially when it crosses the border into France?” Now it’s “Less is More”? I say wait until the Velon Made-for-TV events come round – I think those will turn out to be a “careful what you wish for” scenario.
    In response to Bruce H. (great to see you at EROICA CA) I too think the radios are killing the sport, but perhaps one must have been around long before they showed up so see this? Francesco Moser was on Italian TV the other day, saying the same thing. A debate for another time, but for now if you don’t want to watch the entire live broadcast, DON’T. Would you rather have only highlights broadcast each day?

  17. To me it’s as simple as this: Chaotic stages or races would be nothing without the contrast of controlled stages or races. Thus I may spend hours watching the latter, actually enjoying it, knowing that I will have plenty of the former in time. Please give me as much coverage as possible. My only concern is the limits of course and rules design experimentation encouraged by TV. Could be for the better, could surely also be for the worse.

  18. It doesn’t seem that long ago that with just 4 TV channels in the UK, you were lucky to get a short bulletin covering the days action.

    Now we have hundreds of TV channels, plus on demand streaming, why not show the whole race? There’s a space to do it, once you’ve got the mobile TV cameras and helicopters hired for the day, you might as well use them (must be an increased cost for fuel, but probably not that much, as staff costs are probably the same).

    The viewer can either watch it or not. Don’t expect marvellous viewing figures, as there are so many other things to watch. But expect an extremely focused audience that you can tune adverts too.

    I watched, and still have recorded, the full stages of the Tour de Yorkshire: it’s another thing all together to see your local roads filmed from above; it’s a real buzz.

    I’ve watched the full stages of this weeks Giro a couple of times (weekend ones) – sometimes fast forwarding during the the more stable sections. I’ve also recorded yesterday’s in full – purely because we had our honeymoon around Alberobello, so it’s interesting to see the area in detail, from above.

    Anyway: 1) there’s plenty of space to fill on the TV now, so why not this instead of re-runs of some 1980s’ sitcom? 2) people watch for different reasons at different times.

    Maybe a certain section of the UK audience grew up with televised cricket (before it disappeared from free to air, causing a huge crisis in the sport), so cycling, even the boring bits, seems incredibly dramatic in comparison.

  19. Interesting blog and comments as usual.

    I’m not saying I want this to happen but if you were designing a GT for the modern TV audience, with the aim to grow it beyond its current audience, you’d probably have midweek stages running for a few hours in the evening. Say 5-8pm. Saturday and Sunday be reserved for longer, all day mountain stages. Lasting six hours but maybe running until 8pm. It solves the problem for the casual viewer of having to avoid spoilers all day (or doing “A Likely Lads” in British parlance).

    In addition you’d probably have more intermediary sprints/KoM sections with their own bonuses. You might even scrap the entire concept of time as being the defining characteristic and run it along GP lines – giving out points for stages which determine GC rather than the green jersey.

    Again, this would simplify things to the new viewer, as they could now see Cavendish challenge Froome, or Kittel against Quintana for the TdF. Do not underestimate some people’s lack of understanding. I once saw someone on a football forum bragging that he’d got 500/1 on Cavendish to win the Tour.

    Obviously I’m not seriously proposing those changes but it does show how media can shape events. Back in the day longer stages ran away from the public glare enabled journalists to be, well, creative in their news/story telling. That doesn’t work now.

    Cycling is tricky to “sell” to new people, even those who are interested. It is almost like revising and passing a test before you get it. I have a mate who’s just got into it and loved Paris-Roubaix, but I was almost relieved when he said he hadn’t been watching the Giro as it’s been pretty dull, last 10km apart, but it’s a sport we love and one which rewards patience. That’s a special thing in the modern age. And I’m sure by week three of the Giro we’ll have great racing and wonder what all the fuss was about. Well, that’s the hope, anyway…

    • One of the great things about cycling – in Britain, at least – is that it’s so easy to avoid spoilers. I imagine if you liked football it would be impossible.

      • True, although Eurosport do their best to spoil it. I accidentally saw the result of one of the Giro stages as their pre-highlights news bulletin showed the the finish if the stage they were about to broadcast. No “look away now” message. Bah.

        Unfortunately for me my job involves the use of social media as well (Twitter). During​ the Tour you can almost guarantee I’ll see the day’s result, especially if it involves a British rider. Less of a problem at the Giro. That’s an issue for me rather than a wider one of course!

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