9 months on from the birth of the new look Channel 4 Racing

9 months on from the birth of the new look Channel 4 Racing

Here is an article of mine first published on the excellent website dealing with all sport on TV www.sport-onthebox.com

9 months after the birth of the new look on air coverage from the team at Channel 4 Racing, I reflect on a new service that continues to get better but which, I believe, should address certain issues.

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clare balding presents the new look channel 4 racing vgtips

Clare Balding. Photo by C4

It’s not easy watching sport on TV. Not for me. Not when you’ve produced countless hours of sports programmes over the years.

Which hat do I wear? That of the sports fan, or the one with an imaginary ‘Producer’ emblazoned on the front?

It’s no fun watching telly in my company. I can spot every messy edit. I’m yelling questions down the earpiece of presenters who cannot hear me.

So when I watch Channel 4 Racing I likely watch it with different spectacles from those worn by its critics. The armchair complainers take to Twitter.

I don’t like change.

Neither do racing fans. They miss the likes of John Francome, Derek Thompson and John McCririck and they have, since January, been venting their spleen about how the new look Channel 4 Racing coverage is not a patch on what went before.

I am a TV anorak. I have VHS copies of programmes going back to the days before VHS. Yes, I am the man who misses Betamax tapes! True, I have got those programmes converted to DVD, if only so that I can see that some programmes I worked on in the 1980’s were truly awful.

The other day I came across an old VHS copy of a Christmas edition of ‘The Morning Line’ on Channel 4. The 8am racing preview show that was once my Saturday alarm call. There was Nick Luck wearing a truly horrific Christmas jumper and there was John McCririck; as truly horrific as ever.

Not only have I watched programmes that have changed when a new independent production company is given the task to freshen up the show, I have actually worked on some such programmes.

My experience is this. As time goes by, viewers forget what the original show was like. True, it can take years, not months, for people to think of the current look as the established one.

I am as guilty as the next man of looking back on many aspects of sport with rose tinted spectacles. That includes the television sports programmes of yesteryear.

a review of channel 4 racing by vgtips

Production gallery at C4 Racing. Photo by Denise Large

In my opinion ‘The Morning Line’ was, on a going day, more entertaining in the days when Francome called Thompson “a prat” than it is now.

But there were many dull editions of the show before January 2013, but viewers don’t remember them.

There is no doubt that Francome is missed. But he opted to leave when Highflyer Productions lost the contract to produce Channel 4 Racing at the end of last year.

I don’t miss ‘Thommo’ and I don’t crave for the days when ‘Big Mac’ tripped over his words and was outspoken simply for the sake of attention seeking.

John McCririck is suing Channel 4 for unfair dismissal. We should sue them for employing him as long as they did!

The actual racing coverage is better today than it was this time last year.

For me, that is beyond question. New Executive Producer Carl Hicks is innovating all the time and the use of sectional timings is progressive.

New production teams need time to gel. On air chemistry is rarely achieved in any first series.

The knowledgeable Jim McGrath remains the strongest member of the team. He has the advantage of having presented TV shows for years. But it is his knowledge of the pedigree and history of horse racing that is invaluable to the coverage.

He clearly misses the banter with Francome. So do the viewers. They were the Statler and Waldorf of racing. An on air pairing where one often knew what the other was thinking before they had thought it.

Graham Cunningham is more often than not the sidekick for McGrath these days.

Graham is at his strongest when raising interesting issues about the state of the sport and how it is run. When the doping scandal hit racing earlier this year, Cunningham came into his own by questioning the speed with which the British Horseracing Authority charged, found guilty and punished one trainer; but then effectively said ‘case closed.’

Cunningham annoys some viewers and at least one jockey. Ryan Moore hit back at criticism levelled against him and other jockeys. The critic was Graham Cunningham.

Moore said: “Beware of people in the media who try to carve out a niche for themselves as controversial or “forthright.”

Moore would have no problem with ex jockey Mick Fitzgerald. The former Grand National winner has been a positive addition to the Channel 4 team. His on air enthusiasm is infectious and, because jockeys respect him, he is able to get more from them when interviewing them just before or after a race.

Brix, Rishi, Gina & Emma. Photo by Nick Luck

Brix, Rishi, Gina & Emma. Photo by Nick Luck

The same cannot be said for the retained Emma Spencer. I’m assured she’s a lovely girl and very few male viewers would turn down the chance to be stuck in a horsebox with her but, as a broadcaster, she’s lacking.

I suspect Emma doesn’t go to bed the night before the show with her bed covered in research notes. Why would you when you look like that?

Well, because that’s your job. And the more research you do, the less likely it is that you will be left red faced.

It’s all very well teetering down a racecourse in high heels, trying to catch up with a winning jockey, but simply looking good is not enough.

The Emma gaffe counter has been hard to keep up with this past flat season.

There was the day she asked winning jockey Neil Callan if he was looking forward to taking part in the big race later that day.

Everyone knew Callan had been replaced on that ride in favour of the darling of Channel 4 Racing; one Frankie Dettori. Everyone, that is, except Emma.

Earlier in the day, Callan had expressed his disappointment via Twitter. How he kept his reply to Emma to a mild: “I think you should do your homework”, I shall never know.

Later in the season, after one horse died moments after winning a race, Emma got those heels moving to catch up with the winning but understandably dejected jockey Johnny Murtagh. Her second question was to ask him to talk through the race.

I could hardly believe my ears. The horse Thomas Chippendale had died of a heart attack. Who cared how the race panned out?

It reminded me of the day a former TV colleague of mine asked a detective in charge of a murder inquiry: “Tell me, just how serious are the dead man’s injuries?”

Some people on Twitter think I’ve got it in for Emma. I haven’t. The TV producer in me wants to help her. To sit down with her and suggest other potential questions that could be used in certain situations.

There are more questions than: “He/She is such a strong horse, isn’t he/she?” or “He/she doesn’t know when he/she is beaten.”

Rishi Persad proved as much a few weeks later.

In January I wrote on this site of how I hoped Channel 4 would stretch presenter Rishi and get him to do more than was the case on the BBC. I always felt he had more to offer than a hurried 2 minute interview with the winning connections of a horse.

I have been proved right.

After the aforementioned Johnny Murtagh had won yet another Group 1 race, Rishi avoided clichés and instead asked a more searching question.

Rishi enquired: “People talk about momentum in sport and, because it’s intangible, it’s hard for some to understand. Can you explain what it is?”

The thoughtful question prompted an illuminating reply from Murtagh. I hung on his every word.

Indeed Rishi says it was “the best thing I’ve heard on horseback all year.”

Persad has enjoyed presenting ‘The Morning Line’ when the regular front man Nick Luck is unavailable. In the winter months, the accomplished Alice Plunkett stood in for Luck once or twice and the on air exchanges came closer to being the entertaining banter that many say they miss from the old days.

Her former sidekick Alastair Down is missed on screen. He may not have a face for television, but he has a great voice and writes better copy than any other racing journalist of his generation.

When viewers voiced their outrage that Down was out; a compromise was reached.

His voice returned for the Cheltenham festival in March and he is now used to voice over video packages. His tribute to the late, great, trainer Sir Henry Cecil moved me. It was a brilliant script.

Another video tribute to Cecil, presented by new head girl of C4 Racing, Clare Balding, was very good and heartfelt. But it was not in the same league as Down’s homage.

Clare is only presenting at the high profile meetings. She is, after all, the busiest broadcaster since the days when you couldn’t turn on your telly without seeing a Carol. Smillie or Vorderman.

Back in January I did wonder if there were simply too many people in the new look presentation team. But how they are employed, and when, has been carefully planned. I suspect an ego or two has been hurt once or twice, but everyone seems to know their place and most have been played to their strengths.

I think another new face to C4 Racing, Gina Bryce, was wasted at Royal Ascot when she accompanied a televisual tornado called Brix on a daily tour of tastes, tipples, taffeta and toffs. But someone has to present the fashion segments that we racing fans hoped would vanish along with the BBC,

Realistically, we all knew fashion segments would continue to annoy us. We just prayed Royal Ascot would not become a fashion programme interspersed with a little racing. There were days when it felt precisely that.

TV camera films jamie moore on dubak at aintree In the betting ring, Tanya Stevenson has clearly had a weight lifted from her shoulders. No longer is Tanya a nanny in charge of a disruptive child who spits when he speaks. Without McCririck, she can concentrate on offering betting news and advice.

For some of the big meetings C4 paired her with Irishman Brian Gleeson and I thought Tanya and Brian worked well together.

But some fellow racing fans are still unhappy. On Twitter they protest: “We hate new look C4 Racing” and “Bring back Francome.” But they are fewer in number than they were 6 or 9 months ago.

As in life, nothing stays the same in television. The BBC even managed to kill off ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ – at least ten years after they first wanted to.

They had to wait until the majority of its audience died.

I think there is plenty of life left in Channel 4 Racing and, whether we despair at Emma’s post race questions or cringe at Graham’s lame jokes; we should all support the production team.

Wearing both my hats, as producer and viewer, I am worried about ‘The Morning Line.’ It is no longer appointment to view television for this faithful follower and no show can afford to lose the previously loyal.

The show needs exploratory surgery. The set is too cumbersome and is not viewer friendly. The quiz is a waste of airtime and I don’t want to wait 25 minutes for a preview of the big race of the day.

But the coverage of the race meetings is much better these days. And, in the hands of people who care passionately about the sport, things can only get better.

We, the regular viewers, need racing on terrestrial television.

The coverage is in experienced hands and the broadcaster, Channel 4, has stuck by the sport when the BBC said they couldn’t afford to. They were too busy paying off senior management.

They no longer care about racing. We do. Channel 4 does.

It’s time we all stopped pining for what was, and relish what is.

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