What does it matter which independent television company produces sport on TV? That is the question i get asked often.
Oh it matters. Believe me, it matters.
IMG will produce the new look coverage of racing for Channel 4. And i should have seen that coming. For as long as i can recall the broadcaster Channel 4 has always had close ties with the independent company originally set up by the late sports agent Mark McCormack.
In the 1990’s i produced the late night, live two and a half hour studio based show ‘Under the Moon’ for IMG and Channel 4.
There were then some very good and professional people working at IMG and, while i had issues with an element of the management at the company back then, I had no doubt that i was fortunate to be working for one of the best producers of televised sport.
I cannot speak for anything the company has produced since that time. I will judge how they perform by their output. As i always do. As a viewer and punter first, and as a television producer second.
The coverage on Channel 4 racing needed freshening up. It had become predictable and, at times, a little stale. I like most of the Channel 4 racing team and I would not throw the baby out with the bath water.
That is always a temptation for a new production company. To change everything, wholesale.
But that is almost always a mistake.
I do feel for two men who have done more to promote racing on TV than anyone since the likes of Peter Dimmock and Paul Fox – two men who once made the BBC synonymous with racing.
Decades later the powers that be at the BBC decided to give up on racing as a televised sport. They used the cost of coverage as an excuse. Funny that, considering how much money was available to a) move the sports team up to Salford b) move them back down again a few months later to cover the Olympics and c) the shed loads of money the Beeb threw at their excellent coverage of the Olympics.
The two men i speak of are John Fairley and Andrew Franklin. They love racing and, at a time when others did not want to know about televising the sport, they invested vast quantities of money and time into ensuring that racing had a place on TV. Not just the big meetings. Not only the fashion show at Royal Ascot, the coverage of which the BBC interspersed with a little racing.
Highflyer Productions, run by Fairley and Franklin, made sure that unfashionable meetings were covered. At racecourses that used to get an airing in the golden days of ‘Grandstand’ on the BBC.
Fairley and Franklin produced racing coverage for those who love racing. The BBC ended up producing racing for those who watch daytime television.
There is a vast difference.
TV contracts are there to be won and lost. John Fairley knows that as well as anyone. But he and Franklin will be saddened to have been spurned by Channel 4. Whatever the reasons may be.
The most predictable part of this new deal is that Clare Balding (top photo) will become the main presenter of Channel 4 Racing. No surprise there.
From the moment C4 announced she would present their coverage of the forthcoming Paralympics, I knew that the broadcaster would tell those independent production companies pitching for the job as producers of the racing coverage: “you have to deliver Clare Balding.”
And i have no argument with that. The Olympics coverage only cemented Clare’s place as the most professional sports broadcaster currently working in the UK.
And she has had to be ultra professional. Working alongside the erratic Willie Carson.
Surely IMG will not include him as part of their coverage. And, while they are at it, they should drop John McCririck. Nothing against him personally – though he still complains when he sees me about a taxi i booked for him in 2003 that was not outside Nottingham railway station to pick him up (it was there as it happens!)
But his on air outpourings now border on the insane.
They may use him in order to keep the type of viewer the BBC went out of their way to attract. Like my old neighbour Vin, a lovely old gal who only watched the racing coverage to see the outfits and to laugh along with Willie Carson or watch McCririck doing his tic tac.
It is a shame when a sport has to attract those who don’t give a stuff about it, in order simply to boost the TV ratings.
Such is life.
I would keep Jim McGrath. That’s the knowledgeable man of that name and not the BBC commentator who likes a glass of red now and again.
McGrath, formerly one of the main men at Timeform, has such knowledge of racing dating back decades. Any presentation team needs someone like that. Someone who can pull fascinating facts out of his mind and educate us about a certain horse and its breeding.
Having young fresh, pretty faces is fine for the likes of Sky Sports News where blonde hair and boobs are the prerequisite qualification for presenting. And where gravitas is a stranger.
But if you want to have coverage of a sport taken seriously, then you need someone who knows that sport on all fronts. Jim McGrath owns and breeds thoroughbred racehorses. He is a serious punter. He is passionate about the issues facing racing and he is good at putting his point across on TV.
It remains to be seen if the experienced former jockey, and ultra smooth man of the airwaves, one John Francome, is kept on. But he pulls in lady viewers, make no mistake about that.
Personally i would keep Alice Plunkett as part of my presentation team. She understands racehorses and the people who work with them on a daily basis. I want people to present who can educate and illuminate. Tell me something i didn’t know about horses. Alice is that person. I have learned much about horses thanks to her knowledge and enthusiasm.
I would also be sure to keep Tanya Stevenson, more for her knowledge of the world of bookmaking than her presentation skills. But i doubt that will happen. She has long term close working ties with the now deposed Highflyer Productions.
And Nick Luck. Where does this leave him? Sure, he will always get work for Racing UK. But, in my opinion, it would be a shame were those who only watch racing on terrestrial television deprived of his knowledge of the sport. And his contacts within it.
I would be making an offer to my former Sky colleague Alex Hammond to join the team. Though that offer would have to be a good one to tear her away from her present employers.
I know what it is like to be part of a production company that wins a contract to produce a programme. Ideas fly around the office. Enthusiasm goes into overdrive. New methods and style of presentation will be tried. Some will not survive the first few weeks.
Channel 4 racing coverage is not broke. It needs updating. Men like Carl Hicks, who played a big part in the BBC coverage of the London Olympics, will spearhead the behind the scenes coverage for IMG. Carl will be Executive Producer of Channel 4 Racing.
And, so I am led to believe, the talented Daryl Goodrich will inject much needed new life into producing the filmed reports that are transmitted between the races. They definitely require a kick up the backside.
There is a danger that the audiences who watched the BBC coverage of the Olympics will now expect all sports programming to be that ambitious. That cannot be. That level of expenditure will not be seen in TV circles for many years to come. Perhaps never again.
Racing coverage on TV does need to enter the 21st century. I acknowledge that.
But the production company must not alienate those who have been and, until death, will continue to be the core spectator of racing on television. The bread and butter viewers who will watch racing from Musselburgh and Thirsk every bit as much as they will tune in for the Cheltenham festival.
Don’t make the mistake of chasing the younger viewer by using gadgets and graphics that look great, but add nothing to our knowledge of racing.
Those who are actually charged with administrating the sport of racing are obsessed about getting the young to go racing. Whether it is for the racing or the beer, they’re not bothered. Just get them through that turnstile.
It is undeniable that the very popularity of the sport in the coming years does rest on whether those younger than me are attracted to racing, as I was, from an early age.
But presentation and style do not have a long shelf life. I have worked on programmes that looked great. But once viewers got used to that, they moved on. There was nothing informative to keep their attention.
Highflyer Productions produced racing coverage for the purist fan of the sport. That suited me. But not those brought up on the whizz and bang style of Sky Sports (for the record, another of my former employers)
Highflyer recently tried to squeeze fashion items into their coverage of big meetings. It wasn’t a great fit.
Sunset and Vine, who produced the coverage for the BBC, were able to marry the coverage of hats and fascinators with that of horses and fillies. Though the balance did tip too far in favour of the non racing side of things.
It is a racing certainty that IMG have been told by C4 that they must at least equal the amount of coverage of fashion as that seen of late on the BBC.
That will dismay me and many a punter. The people who like to watch racing for the racing.
But i know how TV works. I have produced many a programme for broadcasters whose very existence depends on advertising.
Do you notice the ads during commercial breaks on Channel 4 racing? Bookies and that is pretty much it. They have some of the shortest commercial breaks I have ever seen. Blink and you miss them.
And, my friends, it is advertising revenue that Channel 4 are chasing. They will want a variety of companies to advertise during the coverage of racing. They will want to be able to approach businesses who are connected to the fashion industry, cosmetics and the like.
Channel 4 will only keep covering racing if, during the tenure of the four year contract awarded to IMG, it is proved that bigger spending companies will pay to advertise in between the races.
So it is that those of us who love racing for the thrill of the sport, need the viewing figures to also include those who go to put the kettle on once the race starts.