Guest author @dogsandcycling went “postal” (if you’ll excuse the timely pun) on Twitter a couple of days ago with a pointed rant in response to an interview with longtime Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett that appeared on a popular cycling news website. Everyone enjoyed that serialized 140-character commentary so much, I asked if we might get something a little more detailed than Twitter’s limitations allow.
Bicycling.com recently featured an interview with Phil Liggett about doing Tour de France commentary for American television audiences, and what we could expect to see this year, as TdF coverage has moved from the old Versus channel to NBC Sports Network. Liggett commented that
Coming on board with the NBC Sports Network means our wings are spread even wider, so we have an even more general sports audience now. Our goal becomes to educate viewers who haven’t been watching cycling regularly, and we have to reintroduce the players to the Americans, and reintroduce tactics and other aspects of the race.
This American viewer read that and thought, “Uh-oh. That means filler.” Liggett went on to say
I’ve always been conscious of the new viewers in my commentating, so I’m constantly identifying riders, finding out about their backgrounds, and that’s going to take an even bigger part of the broadcast than when we were on Versus. To someone who is watching cycling for the first time, it can seem so strange. There’s a breakaway, it all comes together for a sprint finish, and nobody can understand that everybody gets the same time. So you have to constantly explain this, but to me this provides a great deal of pleasure.
Yikes! An even bigger part of the broadcast? Past TdF coverage has already been laden with filler and pseudo commercials, and that’s not counting the actual commercial breaks. So let’s envision what this year’s TdF broadcast might look like, shall we?
We’ll probably open our TdF coverage by showing a commentary booth with Liggett, Paul Sherwen, Bob Roll, and a 4thguy to act as moderator (all wearing matching shirts and Road ID bands in various colors). They’ll spend half an hour recapping yesterday’s stage, showing the profile for today’s stage, and doing the obligatory predictions contest where they pass around a “best prognosticator” yellow jersey amongst themselves. OK, fine. But the race is on guys. Can we see that instead? Nope, time for a commercial break:
- Road ID “Phil & Paul won’t ride with Bob” version – check.
- Michelob Ultra, non-Lance version – check.
- E-harmony – check.
- IndyCar racing on NBCSN – check.
- Yellow TdF-branded trainer bike that inclines & declines – check.
Now we can begin to show the bike race. We spend 2 minutes recapping the first 100km, showing the flag wave at Km zero and footage of any early crashes. Then we identify the breakaway participants, and get a couple shots of the chasing peloton. Liggett mentions that this is a good stage for Mark Cavendish, and talks about “his cheeky little eyes.” Paul describes a nearby chateau that really does look great in the helicopter’s hi-def shots.
It’s time to educate the American viewer, so we break away from the race to have a
pseudo commercial for Trek feature where an RSNT mechanic shows us several aerodynamic details on Frank Schleck’s bike. This is followed by a scant few minutes of race coverage, and then it’s time for another commercial break:
- Road ID “Semi-naked Levi won’t ride with Bob” version – check.
- Michelob Ultra, Lance version this time – check.
- eHarmony – check.
- Bull riding on NBCSN – check.
- Yellow TdF-branded trainer bike that inclines & declines – check.
On the way back from commercial, Phil tells us about the Nissan Ultimate Access contest, where we can enter to win a trip to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, or possibly a Trek bike.
Back to the race: Phil tells us the gap between the peloton and the break has remained steady, and Paul remarks that they haven’t yet begun to turn the pedals in anger. Tommy Voeckler passes briefly across the screen, grimaces, and the camera catches an HD view of his tongue. Phil & Paul recount Voeckler’s time in yellow in 2004, and tell us about how he impressed a certain Mr. Lance Armstrong.
Now it’s time to educate American viewers some more, so we break away from the race footage for a
pseudo commercial for SRAM helpful feature on SRAM’s latest innovations in technology. This time we look at Chris Horner’s bike.
Back to the race, Vasil Kiryienka appears onscreen, and Paul excitedly starts talking about José Iván Gutiérrez. We then get a shot of a RadioShack team car, and Paul mentions that Lance will be coming to watch a few days of the race. Phil and Paul recount the glory days of Lance’s seven TdF wins. And then Paul regales us with facts about a rare, but famous local cheese.
Commercial break: same sponsors, you get the picture.
We return from commercial, and instead of showing the race, we have an interview with Tyler Farrar. Then after a couple minutes of race footage showing the Garmin boys in the peloton, it’s time to educate American viewers some more. This time we get a pre-recorded
pseudo commercial for Giro helmets informative segment on the new safety features in bike helmets, presented by a rep from Giro, who uses Farrar’s helmet as a visual aid.
Back at the race, Phil talks about Andy Schleck’s absence. They take this opportunity to do a feature on Andy, showing a series of short interviews, interspersed with dramatic clips of “Chaingate,” with Andy looking angry, Andy being presented with the 2010 maillot jaune, and then brief footage from Andy’s June press conference where his doctor talked about his cracked vertebra. When the feature ends, P&P comment on how unfortunate it was for Andy and the Tour that Alberto Contador had to sully the good reputation of the maillot jaune by doping. They take this opportunity to mention that Floyd Landis is another disgraced rider to have lost his TdF title.
We return from commercial with an aerial shot of a lovely field of sunflowers, then see Lotto chasing the break. As the camera pans back, Paul mentions that “a Certain Bradley Wiggins” is surrounded by teammates, tucked in safely just behind the Lotto boys. Phil mentions that Sky are working just like U.S. Postal, a strong team that keeps their leader protected at all times throughout the race’s three weeks.
Now they present a recap with video highlights of Wiggins’ season wins to-date. At this time, American viewers clearly need more educating, so we follow up the Wiggins piece with a
pseudo commercial for Oakley an informative feature on the latest Oakley eyewear and lenses, with special emphasis on the lenses Bradley prefers for different weather conditions. They neglect to mention what lenses are best worn while warming down with one’s head under a towel.
We get another reminder about the Nissan Ultimate Access contest, and then finally return to racing. The peloton has hit some crosswinds, so things are starting to get interesting. Oh no, it’s time to educate American viewers about echelons. We cut away to a computer-generated graphic with tiny riders from RSNT, Garmin, BMC, & Sky rotating through. Then, after two minutes of watching real-life echelons, we cut to Bobke in the booth, wearing his Road ID and talking about whether the break will stay away.
Returning from commercials, it’s time to show the logos of several sponsors who are bringing us race footage today. The lovely sunflower field appears behind them. More HD eye candy. At last we go back to the race, but the road has turned, so the echelons are over. But hey, there’s the Clean Bottle guy running along the roadside. He looks pretty good in HD too. Phil helpfully tells us that the Clean Bottle unscrews from both ends for easy cleaning. Then we cut to a pre-stage interview with Levi Leipheimer.
Finally we’re in the closing kilometers. As the guys in the break make their last dying efforts, Paul says they are turning themselves inside out and digging deep into their suitcases of courage. The peloton catches them, and a breathless bunch sprint ensues.
And once again we cut to commercial break.
And that is what TdF coverage in America typically looks like. Year in and year out. Gorgeous HD pictures, beautiful scenery. Enough product placement to choke a horse. And a little bit of racing thrown in for good measure.