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I’d just sat down with my Sunday morning coffee and casually flicked on this weekend’s Formula 1 Grand Prix when the fireball lit up my TV. It came just three corners into the race, in the usual first-lap chaos. Romain Grosjean clipped another car and went careening into a row of Armco barriers that sliced his car in half like a hot knife through butter, spewing fuel and fire into the space where we all knew he should be.
It happens fast. Then it hits you. There’s a human being in there, in that fire.
In the moments after the fireball lit up the screen, the camera shot quickly cut away, back to the front of the line of cars, now driving slowly back toward the pits under a red flag. For almost three minutes, an eternity, viewers got nothing but wide shots of F1 cars parking, the occasional tighter shot of a concerned face.
The first cut back to the crash showed Grosjean leaving the site, on his own two feet.
The director of the broadcast made a conscious decision not to show the world replays of the crash until it was confirmed that Grosjean was safe and relatively uninjured. Once it was clear Grosjean was safe, then the crash was shown again.
Why isn’t it like this in cycling? Why was Fabio Jakobsen’s crash shown in slow motion before we even knew if he was alive? Why did I watch Remco Evenepoel launch off a bridge 20 times as the commentary team apologized for showing it to us?
As with many of cycling’s quirks, it comes down to the way races are broadcast and with whom these decisions ultimately lay. There are often cultural differences between the largely Anglo audience we mostly speak to here at CyclingTips and those making these calls. And the channel you tune into to catch bike racing often has very little, if any, control over what you’re actually seeing on screen.
To get a better sense for how this works, or should work, I called up a former NBC producer, who asked that I not use his name as he’s still in the industry. And I hit up Rob Hatch, a commentator with Eurosport, who has previously apologized for the images he’s commentating on.
“It’s much more nuanced than people think,” Hatch said.
First, the basics. At pro cycling events, and in fact, at most sports events, the crew in charge of recording the images is also the same group of people responsible for deciding what pictures are shown on your television. They send out what is called the world feed.
That can be what’s called a dirty feed, covered in graphics and such, or a clean feed, which is just the images. Broadcasters will pick up dirty feeds for smaller races where they don’t want to apply their own graphics. NBC uses the clean feed most of the time at the Tour de France, for example, but a dirty feed at the Vuelta a España.
Eurosport, NBC, ITV, or whatever channel you’re tuned into, sees the images, or what’s on screen, at pretty much the same time you see them at home. “There’s no communication with the director, who is always the local TV producer,” Hatch said.
The decisions to cut to various shots, or run replays, sit with those local directors. At the Tour de France, this means the images are coming from ASO and France TV. In Italy, they come from RAI and their Italian crews. In Flemish-speaking Belgium, it’ll be VRT, or Sporza as we call them.
This means that those making the decisions about running gruesome replays are somewhat buffered from the viewing public, which might assume that Eurosport or NBC is making those calls. They are not. Hatch and his fellow commentators certainly aren’t.
“What Eurosport did do, and what TV companies can do maybe, is have another shot in place,” said Hatch. “But you’re only going to make that decision after you’ve seen the first replay, then it’s too late. It’s not easy when you don’t know what’s coming.”
At major events like the Tour, a big player like NBC will also pay for clean feeds from the helicopters and motos, and can decide to swap over to those feeds if it wants to. But for the vast majority of the cycling calendar, whatever is coming over the world feed is what you’ll see on your screen.
“We were always taught to cut to super-wide shot, and cut to tight faces to convey the concern and gravity of the situation without showing a tasteless replay,” said the former NBC producer, who has worked in other major US sports where injuries occur. “But when you are taking world feeds you have no control.”
So, don’t blame your English-language commentators, or the companies they work for. It’s very likely there’s little they can do.
That doesn’t explain why the people who are in charge of these decisions are making us re-watch Remco’s bridge crash for the 20th time. That, according to Hatch and our NBC producer, comes from a deeper cultural divide.
In some countries – including pro cycling hubs like France, Spain, and Italy – both viewers and directors are more likely to view these incidents within the context of censorship. The position is that you have to show what really happened, even if it’s uncomfortable.
“In the English-speaking world, we’re a bit more sensitive to those images,” Hatch said. “Where I live in Spain, and where Eurosport headquarters are, in France, they really consider it censorship if you don’t show everything.”
This is an argument I’ve encountered previously – that pulling away from uncomfortable shots constitutes censorship, and if audiences want to turn off their TVs they are welcome to do so. The broader argument has some weight when you consider other more impactful and detrimental ways in which media can lie by omission.
As our NBC producer said, “There’s never any universal understanding of anything … let alone the morality of watching a dude potentially die on replays over and over again.”
But I keep coming back to how Grosjean’s crash was handled by Formula 1 on Sunday. It was classy. It understood how the audience, let alone Grosjean’s family, might feel watching that crash on repeat before additional information came in. I’ve sat with partners of bike racers as a big field crash splashes across the screen on repeat – they don’t enjoy it.
In F1, broadcast rights are entirely controlled by a single entity, Liberty Media, which has strict rules about how its events are broadcast. Rules, perhaps, such as don’t show images of someone who may be dead until we confirm they are not. Longtime F1 fans will recall the live coverage of Ayrton Senna’s death, which continues to haunt and shape the sport and its coverage today.
There is a happy medium here, sitting between gruesome replays and distortion of reality. As soon as Grosjean was confirmed safe, the broadcast cut straight back to a replay of the incident. It never showed the entirety of the crash from an inboard view, but we saw the Haas car slam into the barrier and explode at least 15 times over the next 45 minutes.
It was fine, though, because we’d already seen Grosjean walk away.
Cycling’s dispersed system of world feeds and the many directors of those feeds make it impossible to change how crash footage is treated across the entire calendar.
I’ll try anyway. World feed directors, if you’re out there: stop sending out crash replays until we know the fate of the riders involved.