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Dominic Mills 

Channel 4 cheers for Bernie and F1; I weep for John Cleese

Channel 4 cheers for Bernie and F1; I weep for John Cleese

Dominic Mills begins the New Year by scratching his head over the ad-free Formula One coming to Channel 4 and lamenting the sad use of a comedy genius in a lacklustre Specsavers ad.

Imagine the scene at ITV HQ the Friday before Christmas. Senior executives high five as they leave for the weekend believing a deal with Bernie Ecclestone to bring F1 back to the channel is in the bag.

On Saturday morning they wake up to find Bernie has jumped into bed with C4 and, what's more, with a partially ad-free deal to broadcast 10 Grand Prix.

It looks like a cunning smash-and-grab raid, or as Blackadder famously put it: "As cunning as a fox who's a Professor of Cunning at Oxford University."

Indeed, in some quarters I've heard conspiracy theorists describe it as a cunning ploy to glue up Culture Secretary John Whittingdale's mission to privatise C4. The fox analogy certainly works: C4 is the fox on the run from the hounds of privatisation.

What could throw the hounds off the scent better than a four-year F1 deal where C4's ability to monetise the £25-30m deal (based on £2-£2.5m per race and broadcast costs of around £500,000 per time) is hobbled from the start by its obligation to show the races themselves ad free?

Buyers may wish to pay less, and the government may decide that any public row for a diminished sum of money isn't worth it.

Except, of course, that C4 doesn't see it like that. Naturally there's some ego involved. C4 bid for F1 four years ago and lost out; winning this time round must seem tying up unfinished business for chief executive David Abraham and programming supremo Jay Hunt.

C4 is studiously avoiding any public commitment to audience levels, but privately it believes F1 will increase its monthly reach, help it rebalance its gender split (currently 52-53% female), and bring in young, male, upmarket, light viewers. These it will seek to build on by trailing C4 stars like Guy Martin and Bear Grylls in and around F1 coverage.

This in turn will allow it to open up conversations with brands that otherwise don't spend a lot of cash with C4. Remember too that, while F1 was on the BBC, advertisers couldn't get near it.

C4 will also be able to dump some of the daytime repeat dross - Come Dine with Me, Deal or No Deal and so on - that currently fills those slots with low audiences and revenue. Accordingly, C4 expects F1 audiences on race weekends (and don't forget rights include practice, qualifying and highlights) to be 4-5 times bigger than those for the programmes F1 replaces.

But the deal doesn't come without risks; one, dealing with Bernie Ecclestone is like wrestling with a pig in shit - you hate it, but the pig loves it; two, for British audiences, Lewis Hamilton needs to keep winning; three, audiences for F1 have been declining anyway, and there's a natural drop-off when they shift away from the BBC to a commercial broadcaster; and four, the majority of the commercial value in F1 - between 50 and 60% of sports rights experts say - are in the live races.

To make up that missing amount across practice, highlights and other F1 inventory requires, at the very least, a buoyant TV ad market and benign economic conditions.

So far, forecasts on the TV market itself are buoyant. The economy less so. Fingers crossed.

Basil Fawlty Specsavers ad makes me cry (but not with laughter)

A regular reader of Mills on Monday accused me last week of being Mr Curmudgeon. "Judging by what you write," he said, "you wake up angry every morning."

Moi? I think I'm sweetness and light, but I won't disappoint him this week. I'm probably the only person who doesn't find John Cleese's Basil Fawlty ad for Specsavers a side-splitting journey down memory lane.

You can watch it above, or click here to see the largely approving comments.

Actually, it's not so much that I don't find it funny. It's mildly entertaining but, to my mind, not as good as some of the other Specsavers work (like the shepherd/sheepdog one).

It's more that I find it sad. Sad that an iconic piece of comic genius - watch the original scene here - will now be superseded for many by a piece of derivative commercialism. I'm sad that, for many in their 30s, this will be their picture of Cleese, not the one he rightly deserves.

I don't really begrudge him the money (he always been open about the high cost of his various divorces) but above all I'm sad that he has been trapped into recasting himself as a character he created 40 years ago.

He should not, however tempting the money, be made to live in the past. He is 76, and he should be allowed to be 76. Nor should he feel the need to colour his hair (check out the ad) that strange semi-chestnut colour Paul McCartney is also so fond of. I find that sad too.

I'm a big fan of Specsavers, both as a retailer and as an advertiser. In the latter role, I don't feel they get the credit (or the awards) they deserve from the rest of adland. I suspect this is because, since they use their in-house creative team, they are not seen as members of the adland gang.

As if they care, but in this case - by throwing money at a man who can't resist it - they've done themselves a disservice.

Of course, ever the trouper (either that, or he really has sold his soul), Cleese claims in this 'making of the ad' film that over the years he's had many Basil Fawlty ad offers. But he went for this one because "these people had an idea, and I have to say - I've met them, they're all very nice - and within 20 minutes we'd written the script. Because it was kind of obvious, and I looked at them and I thought, I think that will work. I think it's genuinely funny. Because it's funny, it's OK."

Yeah, well, he would say that, wouldn't he, and Mr Curmudgeon doesn't believe a word of it.

On a less curmudgeonly note, if you want to see the real John Cleese advertise his socks off, watch this old Schweppes ad.

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Joy-Marie Dziena, Axtress, Equity on 11 Jan 2016
“"for British audiences, Lewis Hamilton needs to keep winning; three, audiences for F1 have been declining anyway."

Declining UK audiences are precisely because of the Hamilton 'love in', but the BBC, ITV before them and Sky failed to notice Hamilton isn't actually very popular. Just got to hope C4 learn that quickly.”

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