When Guillaume Van Keirsbulck took off yesterday we got to see his attack live on TV and then the rest of the 200km procession. Good TV? Perhaps not unless you’re tuning in for the scenery but it’s better than the alternatives on a midweek afternoon.
Having all the stages televised live from start to finish is a novelty for 2017. Why? It’s a story of supply, demand and dull daytime TV schedules.
One reason to show the race from the start is that action can happen from the start. It’s not always the case and we’ve already seen the break form without a fight, if riders want to go away for the day then the peloton says au revoir. But there will be days when the first hour can deliver more action that the final hour and this makes for compelling TV. As Julien Goupil, head of media at ASO, the company that owns the Tour de France, told L’Equipe last month, broadcasters had been asking for the signal right from the start and so after meetings and planning it’s happened this year. It’s not as simple as recording an extra hour or two, it adds up to a lot of extra costs and constraints.
The action on TV is what we hope for but the decision has plenty 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, said Daniel Bilalian, then head of sports at France Télévisions in an interview with L’Equipe’s print edition last year. They’re also watching online. All this means advertising revenue is falling for traditional television channels because people can skip over the ad breaks. By contrast sports events are “consumed” live, obviously you can’t fast forward through live coverage and people watch precisely because it’s in realtime with the prospect that anything can happen (even if it doesn’t). This means live events are potentially more valuable than other content. Exceptional sports events like the Tour de France and the Olympics also act as rallying points explained 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 sources of content a long, live production is a way to gain some extra viewers.
The other matter is the alternatives: there’s not much else on TV during a midweek afternoon. France Télévisions’ schedules are packed with dubbed detective series from the eighties and nineties like Inspecteur Derrick, Kommissar Rex or Les Enquêtes de Murdoch, “The Murdoch Mysteries”, a Canadian series set in 18th century Toronto. So if it’s a repeat of a crime-fighting German shepherd suddenly the Tour de France has its appeal. Even if the peloton is just riding across the landscape the live aspect is valuable and many, in fact the largest segment of the audience, tune in to watch the landscape. It’s no coincidence that many mountain stages are placed on the weekends or Bastille Day where larger audiences are possible and the 200km countryside processionals happen midweek.
So far the live coverage hasn’t affected the racing. It’s one thing to go in a futile breakaway but another if it’s filmed for hours with bountiful publicity for the sponsors but this hasn’t appealed to the teams so far, just ask Guillaume Van Keirsbulck.
It’ll be interesting to see if the tail of television starts to wag the dog in terms of course design. In fact it has already, glance at this year’s route and the wishes of television producers can be seen all over such as the varied route with, say, the Longwy uphill finish or the tendency to shorter stages that in recent years have been shown live in full. Will more stages become shorter because of TV? Yes for the action but if the point is to pad the schedules with live TV in order to replace stale repeats then maybe not plus for all the action that short stages such as the Critérium du Dauphiné’s super Sunday deliver they cannot happen daily because they’re too exhausting.
Just because it’s live doesn’t mean you have to watch it, some stages simply can’t bring the action we crave. Broadcasters demanded full live coverage and it’s a great addition for some stages. It’s also because of the way the media landscape is changing, with people watching via catch-up and recorded shows. Live TV delivers a live audience which is valuable to broadcasters, especially if it replaces old repeats that pad out the schedules and attract few viewers.