Bathurst Coverage: Were Seven Right or Wrong?

There has been quite a lot of rumbling around the Twittersphere/Blogosphere since the conclusion of the Seven Network’s coverage of the annual Bathurst 1000 motor racing classic last weekend – in which they time-slipped their broadcast by almost 30 minutes by the end of the race.

This disgusted many following the race on social networking sites, with the final result known to many long before the “end” of the race as it was shown on television. This caused betting to be suspended on the race when the issue was discovered, and it has even come to the attention of the politicians, most notably the federal communications minister, Stephen Conroy.

Many have called the tactic a money grab by the network, though Seven themselves claimed it was done to allow viewers to see more of the action. Many were unconvinced – however I decided that it was worth looking at a little deeper, and seeing what exactly what might really be true.

The table below – (click for larger version) – contains the length in minutes and seconds, of all broadcast segments from within the broadcast of the race in each year between 1987 and 2010 – (excluding 1988, 1989, 1999, 2002, and 2003 which I have not yet been able to analyse) – that contained some portion of the race itself. This also covers the ten years the race was broadcast by the rival Network Ten between 1997 and 2006, with the rights returning to Seven in 2007.

The average length of broadcast segments across the years analysed are as follows:

  1987: 561 seconds 1997: 704 seconds 2007: 685 seconds  
  1990: 711 seconds 1998: 707 seconds 2008: 690 seconds  
  1991: 668 seconds 2000: 723 seconds 2009: 706 seconds  
  1992: 777 seconds 2001: 762 seconds 2010: 678 seconds  
  1993: 754 seconds 2004: 678 seconds    
  1994: 740 seconds 2005: 713 seconds    
  1995: 727 seconds 2006: 757 seconds    
  1996: 719 seconds      

The average segment length across pre-1997 Channel Seven broadcasts, race-to-race was 707 seconds, or 11 minutes and 47 seconds; the average segment length across Channel Ten broadcasts, race-to-race between 1997 and 2006 was 721 seconds, or 12 minutes and 1 second; and the average segment length across post-2006 Channel Seven telecasts race-to-race was 694 seconds, or 11 minutes and 34 seconds.

One of the complaints often levied at Seven is that they show much more advertising during the race than used to be shown, but these numbers suggest that it is not significantly different. Across the three periods, there is a total average variation in the length of the segments before a commercial break was taken, of 27 seconds.

This means they can probably squeeze one more 30-second commercial into each commercial break, but this is scarcely different. Certainly, the length of each segment as broadcast is seemingly very similar.

Now, did they time-slip the race last weekend to squeeze in more advertising as some people claim, or was it to show more of the race, as they claim? Interesting question.

This year’s race ran for 6 hours and 12 minutes, which was a new race record. The previous record was 6 hours and 19 minutes, in 1991.

If we add up the total broadcast time taken by all “on-air” segments in 1991, we get 300 minutes, and 43 seconds. The same total for 2010 was 316 minutes and 28 seconds. The average segment length was 668 seconds in 1991, and 678 seconds in 2010.

So we have similar race lengths, and similar average segment lengths, making these two races completely ideal for comparison. Given the 1991 race was seven minutes longer, to make them “the same length”, we’ll take those seven minutes from the 1991 coverage.

This leaves us with 293 minutes and 43 seconds for 1991, and 316 minutes and 28 seconds for 2010. So for two races that are now the “same” length, the 2010 telecast contained 23 minutes more actual broadcast time that contained some part of the race, than the 1991 telecast.

Further, if we compare the 2010 race with the 2004 race – (where both average segment lengths were the same, at 678 seconds) – there was 305 minutes and 5 seconds broadcast by Channel Ten in 2004, eleven minutes less than broadcast by Channel Seven in 2010.

Yet the 2004 race was 17 minutes longer.

Suddenly, Seven’s claim that they did it to show more of the race not only seems plausible, it is actually backed up by the numbers.

Interesting hey?

There were 27 commercial breaks during the race last Sunday – interestingly, 27 minutes was about the amount of time the broadcast was behind the actual race at the end.

What Seven appear to have done is stopped for a 2.5 minute commercial break on average every 11 minutes and 38 seconds, but “paused the tape” for a minute during that break, allowing them to show 3.5 minutes of commercials, instead of 2.5 minutes.

So did they gain 27 minutes of advertising time there? Yes, they did – but the final broadcast segment was more than 37 minutes, so they lost most – if not all – of what they had gained up until that point. If the race was running completely live, they would still have inserted their 3.5 minute commercial breaks, and the extra 23 to 27 minutes of racing we did see, would have not been broadcast.

Did Seven do the right thing? Probably not. Did they do it to try and increase the amount of advertising they could show? Possibly, but it doesn’t look to me like they achieved that outcome.

Did they end up showing more of the race for the fans, just as they claimed? The numbers show pretty clearly that they did – whether that was their original intent or not.

They just need to be a little more honest with the racing fans.

(DISCLAIMER: I have absolutely no affiliation with the Seven Network, nor any other media company. As a long-time devotee of motor racing, Seven’s decision to time-slip the coverage was most interesting, and I have chosen to use the information available from my library of motor racing vision to illustrate what appears to be the case in this situation.)

(NOTE: This article was been developed as part of a discussion I commenced in 2009 in the forums of website V8Central in this thread, and continued after the race this year in this thread.)