This week I’m going to zoom out and talk about the show rather than building. I’ll ask that you keep an open mind and in return, I’m going to try to minimize my literary bludgeoning. BattleBots is a TV show. It's a TV show about a specific competition in the sport of robot combat. When you tune into an episode of BattleBots, it isn’t like football Sunday where a game happens and some media people talk over it and take breaks from the game to talk about the game, concurrent games, or the sport on the whole. Professional sports also have 24/7 coverage on a variety of networks. If you’ve ever watched more than an hour of ESPN while a game isn’t going on, especially when it's Sports Center on repeat, you may notice that show is essentially Access Hollywood or The View, but about sports. BattleBots doesn’t have that. We have to provide our coverage during the rest of the week. Teams have different levels of commitment to their social media, mostly driven by what they feel their returns on time and effort are. Tale of the Tape was great, but now that so many teams are putting out weekly videos, we really couldn’t justify the 8 hours of filming and 20 hours of editing. BattleBots has to exist without relying on builder-made content.
The flow of an episode has been pretty rigid this year. The intent is to build hype for the main event alongside building hype for the next fight. That’s why we don’t often see post-fight damage or pit segments about repairs; those aren’t hype-building. The hype flow is critical to keeping the most casual of viewers engaged since they don’t necessarily just know which builders are associated with which robots. Each episode needs to stand on its own for syndication value too. Syndication is when a show can be sold piecemeal to other networks. The ballpark requirement for syndication is about 80-100 hours of a show before a show can be syndicated. This enables reruns with minimized repeats. BattleBots has well over 100 hours of content at this point, and they’ve successfully sold Season 3 to ITV4 in the UK, proving it's possible to get the elusive international sales rolling. This is where the filler comes in. They’ve started to slowly admit that highlighting so many fights didn’t go as planned, especially during the tournament. I think if the fights had been reserved as “basement tapes” to be released after the show was over, the 7 fights per episode format wouldn’t have gotten as much attention as it did.
There’s been an incredible amount of grumbling about the quantity and frequency of commercials during the cable airing of the show. BattleBots has the same runtime per time slot like any other show. I think many people have just forgotten how many ads air during regular TV. In two hours, BattleBots runs for 83-84 minutes out of a 120-minute slot. That’s entirely consistent with the standard 41-42 minute show in a 60-minute time slot. The frequency with which ads repeat is a factor of who’s watching the show. If you look at the ratings, BattleBots is surprisingly popular with viewers over 50. That audience is therefore the target audience for many of the ads. Those ads everyone hates are what pay for the show. The budget for BattleBots is a direct factor of how valuable the advertising space is between segments. At $6.99 a month, I think Discovery+ is well worth the cumulative 144 minutes of commercials I get to skip, and that’s just to watch BattleBots.
The single biggest hit to the show this year is the lack of a pit reporter. Especially with how good Jenny Taft was at extracting an interview from builders. She’s the only pit reporter we’ve had who engages with the technical material in a meaningful way. Season 5 Jenny had follow-up questions to conversations we’d had in Season 4. Pete Abrahamson is doing his best, but he’s one person and he has to be arena-side to do bot-whisperer things. We’d all love to see him on screen more, but his contributions are overwhelmingly in the background; feeding technical info to Chris and Kenny. He also has to spend the first few hours of the day assessing team readiness and helping set the schedule for the day accordingly. On top of all that, he’s one of the authority figures helping enforce configurations lock-ins when necessary.
Covid safety regulations have been a massive hurdle for pit content. Peter is only allowed to spend something like half an hour in the pits and no more than ten minutes with any one person. Chris and Kenny used to walk the pits in the mornings, but they’re very sequestered for Covid safety. In Season 5, a PA would come around with a laptop running a video call to Chris and Kenny. It was a pretty low-tech way to achieve telepresence. Covid regulations also limit how much builders can interact with production, which made interviews somewhat clunky. On top of that, they can’t come into our pits with cameras as much as they used to, they’re trying to do as much as possible from a safe distance.
There are maybe 10,000 fans who engage with the builders more than superficially, and at best half of those have spent more than $10 on team merch. I point to this to say that of the million or so people who watch the show, only about 1% are engaged with any of the content that exists outside of the episode. One other tidbit of interest is that most of the items we’ve sold on eBay have been sold to people who haven’t ever bought merch. I’m not sure how we’ve reached those fans, how we’ve connected with them enough for them to spend what they do on damaged parts. I’m not complaining, just curious.
Controversies are always difficult for the show. In Season 5 we had a clumsy series of events with the HUGE vs Hydra and Beta vs Rotator fights being shown out of order. Beta vs Rotator aired in the slot they’d wanted the fight to happen in but was filmed after HUGE vs Hydra. The segment they showed of Will gathering pitchforks about Beta not using its hammer had the context of Hydra doing similar a day or two before. When they reorder events for the show, it removes that context, especially for the fans who don’t follow builders on social media. Over the last few days, we’ve seen a controversy emerge over the presentation of the sequence of decisions that led to Cobalt vs Whiplash being called for a double KO. So we have a controversy about a controversy. I’m not going to weigh in on the details because there have been so many emergent details that the narrative could shift between when I finish writing and when this blog posts on Monday morning. There have been some unkind comments thrown at the teams when neither of them had any control over the situation. BattleBots has the ultimate responsibility for crew safety and their assessment was it was too dangerous to do an unstick. My theory is there was a game of telephone that started with the box crew, went through at least one producer, before finally landing in the writer's room as “Cobalt was stuck on and it was a safety issue” which became “Cobalt’s spinner won’t turn off”.
BattleBots has repeatedly declined opportunities to portray teams in a negative light. We’ve gotten to know the producers and writers pretty well over the years and they’re not malicious people, they’re not looking to insert or invent drama. They actively try to play down any builder drama that they do get on film. The handful of times they’ve capitalized on a builder having an emotional moment, it’s been candid. They’ve also been kind enough to skip over moments where builders are just crying. Two weeks of 18+ hour days after months of sleep deprivation to build bots around our work schedules take a massive toll. People get emotional and BattleBots could be shoving cameras into our faces, but they choose to be more respectful than that.
The current state of the show is a compromise. Robot combat is a sport, just like motor racing. We’ve somehow skipped over the grassroots part of the growth and gone straight to (relatively) high-budget TV production. Unfortunately, this has left many builders and robot combat fans disappointed in how the “highest level” of the sport is portrayed. Back when the show was on ABC, they wanted more reality TV, more drama. They had much more aggressive edits showing builders getting emotional. Since moving to Discovery, our show running overlords have had less corporate interference and have been enabled to be more benevolent in their portrayal of the sport and us builders. This isn’t to say Discovery isn’t invested. They are very interested in where BattleBots is going. So interested that their executives follow the subreddit and much of the social media content that teams and fans put out. The endless stream of posts claiming the show is dead isn’t helping anyone. Constructive criticism can go a long way. In Season 5, due to the timing of the show airing vs where they were in editing, they were able to adjust some of the later episodes to magnify the elements fans were enjoying, like the technical deep dives with Jenny Taft. Why didn’t those come back? As I understand it: budget. Those cool animated segments with the heavily scripted and fact-checked voiceovers are expensive to make. Moving to Las Vegas meant there were compromises in budget allocation. The decision to limit some teams to just two-fight night fights was another compromise to maximize the number of teams showing up in at least three episodes.
The grand compromise of being a TV show about a crafted-for-TV competition is that we need to be entertaining first, being purely competitive isn’t enough. The show has to have as much non-fight content (what social media calls filler) as it does so casual viewers, the near-entirety of our audience can follow what’s going on. Everyone yelling for the show to have twice as many fights per episode is forgetting that teams average well over a thousand dollars per match. Fighting the biggest spinners can lead to a five-figure repair bill. The show doesn’t have the budget to throw tens of thousands of dollars at every team. A million dollars sounds like a lot of money until you try to split it sixty-five ways. $15,000 doesn’t build many of the most successful robots even once, much less three times. Until the sport gets so big that the alternative revenue sources become the primary revenue sources (namely merchandise), we’re stuck trying to make the most entertaining TV show about robot combat. We don’t get to play around at this level or with the budgets we do have without TV. We know there’s a contingent of die-hard fans who want the show to get into every gory detail of all the damage, every technical specification of every robot, and minutes of strategic interrogation before and after every fight. We’re here for it, but it won’t be part of the show, not for years. Maybe ever. We get by pretty well between the half a dozen weekly podcasts and the multitude of builder blogs and vlogs. When you consider just how much of a media empire exists around each professional sport, the fact that we have as much regular content as we do is pretty impressive. I’m optimistic about the future of the sport and the future of BattleBots. There are good things in store, some sooner than you expect. I’ll leave you with this final thought: we’re a sport, but we have work to do if we want to be treated like a sport. Both builders and fans need to focus on the things we can do, the things we like, and the show elements that bring us joy. I implore you to emphasize those elements. Bring attention to the show, even if you’re just sharing the fights.