Channel 4 bosses will be hoping that those who do not go racing choose instead to watch their coverage of the sport, writes Vernon Grant.
Trainer Ralph Beckett will be there for business. Last year he trained the winner of the Oaks at Epsom, Talent. He also trained the runner up, Secret Gesture. In 2013 the stable had 73 winners and won over a million pounds in prize money.
Now he’s offered his opinion about the on screen presenters hired by Channel 4. Like all of us, he has his favourites. And he has nominated two people he thinks Channel 4 should hire.
At home, those who refuse to pay to spectate sport on TV will watch Channel 4 racing. They are doing so in increasing numbers. And that pleases me.
Periodically, I have written on this site and via guest posts at http://sport-onthebox.com/ about the progress being made by the production team that took over the coverage of racing on C4 back in January of 2013.
Every so often a member of my VG Tips selections service asks me: “What do you think of it lately, Vernon?”
As a viewer of sport on television since the Boys of ’66 won the World Cup for England while wearing grey shirts and white shorts (at least it looked that way on the family TV in West London); and as a producer of television programmes for ITV, C4, BBC and Sky Sports since 1980, I have always had an opinion about the televised coverage of sport. Soon enough I’ll be at it again. Voicing praise and criticism of the World Cup 2014 coverage. Probably not in equal measure.
I haven’t written about the Channel 4 racing coverage for many months. I’ve been busy writing about the life and times of a man who was once a star on Channel 4 himself, albeit unintentionally. It’s 20 years since the former Chelsea, Millwall, Gillingham and Leyton Orient footballer John Sitton turned the TV air blue and became infamous and, sadly, unemployable in football (order a signed copy of his autobiography here .
I haven’t heard anyone swear on Channel 4 racing. I have seen viewers cursing their coverage of the sport but, I sense, their displeasure has diminished of late. The last official viewing figures proved that, after a shaky start, C4 racing is once again winning back followers of the sport.
There have been moments over the past sixteen months when I doubted if I would watch the coverage again. The ‘Morning Line’ Saturday programme has been deadly dull some weeks. The programme was once my Saturday morning alarm call. Now I decide if I watch based on who is on the ‘expert’ panel and who is the racing guest interviewee on the day.
I care very much about the future of racing on terrestrial television. You should be a fly on my wall when the racing is on Channel 4.
But I know from experience that all new or altered television programmes need time to settle. There should be a period when the knee jerk reactions stop and we take a more considered view, perhaps after said show has been on air for a couple of years.
We’re not at that stage with Channel 4 racing. Lest we forget, Channel 4 handed the baton to the production company, IMG, back in January of 2013.
The outgoing production company, Highflyer, had provided Channel 4 with racing coverage for the previous 28 years. So they had enjoyed plenty of time to develop a format viewers got to know and feel comfortable with. And if there’s one thing TV viewers like more than anything else, it is for a show to feel like a pair of comfy slippers. Or, for the younger viewer, a Onesie!
Ralph Beckett knows how to train winners. I don’t. I know how to produce and develop television programmes that attract good viewing figures. With all due respect to a man who has won me and members of VG Tips plenty of money over the years, he does not.
I do not agree with some of what he has written in ‘Horse and Hound’ magazine. His words are photographed above.
I’ll not go over too much old ground. My opinion on the C4 racing presenters has changed little in the past year.
In brief, since my first article written in the month the new look coverage was launched, I have gone right off presenter and would be funny man, Graham Cunningham. I still like him when he asks penetrating questions of those in charge of racing. I can be found nodding in agreement with him when he castigates those who have clearly done wrong.
But I dislike his constant sniping at jockey Ryan Moore for being monosyllabic in post race interviews. Moore is not, says Cunningham, “the easiest interviewee.”
Sorry, Graham, but Ryan Moore is there to ride winners for those who employ him. You don’t. Channel 4 doesn’t employ him. He is not the type of professional sportsman who has an interest in being so good on camera that a TV executive will hire him to present shows when he retires from the sport (so depriving yet another trained and professional broadcaster of a job).
I know Ryan has told cameramen where to go when, to his mind, they have got in his way. I’d like to see their reaction if he did likewise when the director was screaming at them to get a great shot. Or I’d love to see Ryan making faces at Graham Cunningham from behind the camera that he appears to want to make love to whenever he is on air.
I say one last time. You’re not funny Graham Cunningham. So do us viewers a favour and stop trying to be.
And stop sniping at Ryan Moore just because the jockey took to print to cast aspersions upon your own knowledge of racing. Ryan Moore has forgotten more about the skills required when riding a horse than you will ever know.
I believe Jim McGrath to be the most authoritative voice on the show. For those who like a bet, or simply want to understand a little more about thoroughbreds, his knowledge of pedigree and breeding is second to none.
I don’t want John McCririck back (the Executive Producer of the show – a man who has Yaya Toure’s birthday is his diary – would support Manchester United before that happened). And we can’t have John Francome back because ‘Francs’ decided to quit of his own accord when there was a change in the production company making the show.
I happen to think the coverage has settled down, is maturing and gradually finding its own identity.
Channel 4 racing is a work in progress. Producers have the unenviable task of trying to make exciting television of many poor quality racing fixtures on offer these days. You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
But the Channel 4 racing coverage of the Grand National meeting was superb. Not just of the race itself (during which the only member of the team to have a rare off day was commentator Simon Holt), but also on the other days.
I thought the Aintree meeting last April was the week when the new Channel 4 racing team came of age.
It was due in no small part to some excellent planning by producers. They got the running order spot on. They moved between the presenters in such a way that none got too much time, and none of them too little. With my TV producer hat on, it was a very well produced and directed outside broadcast.
Yes, there are things I would change. How many TV producers does it take to change a light bulb? Let’s not go there!
I sit at home griping about this and that. Nobody listens. ‘Er indoors has spent 16 years listening to my one way conversations with the telly.
Only last weekend I could be found bemoaning how long the vision mixer gave me to read the ‘Big Race Stats.’ Now I’m no slouch when it comes to reading captions. And, having produced countless hours of live television, I know timing captions is no easy task. Last Saturday I didn’t get enough time to read those stats. I doubt anyone did.
For the ‘Morning Line’ a crew was filming at the stables of Andrew Balding. That was a good idea executed as well as the conditions allowed (though if I find out that an old mate was on camera and not panning all the way to his right when following the horses, I’ll be having a word the next time I see him!)
The C4 team were fortunate that Balding (brother of Clare) knows what TV requires and was able to keep talking in an interesting and informative manner while we waited an age for the horses to appear through the rain soaked lens.
TV is forever about innovation. You can’t cover racing today in the manner that was the norm when I worked on such output. The punters on their sofa expect much more now.And Executive Producer Carl Hicks is a disciple of innovation. He’s the right man to freshen up the televised coverage of the racing itself and he has already brought new ideas to the screen.
We haven’t agreed on every issue via our personal Twitter exchanges, but I respect what he is trying to do and his passion for the task he took on.
Director Denise Large has been covering live racing for years and continues to do so admirably.
And the crew are the best. I know. I worked with two or three of them over several years on non racing projects (sorry lads, I’ve sold out of VHS copies of both ‘Jingle Bollocks’ by Chubby Brown and ‘Banging with Manning’).
So while you will still find me, thousands of miles away, yelling in vain down the earpieces of presenters who cannot hear me, I am in the main content with how the coverage is maturing.
In my first article on this subject back at the start of 2013 I stated that the survival of racing on terrestrial television would not come down to whether you or I liked or disliked this or that presenter. This is commercial television. Advertisers will dictate the future. Watching the recent racing coverage it seemed clear to me that more advertisers are buying time in the commercial breaks than was the case 12-18 months ago. The ad breaks no longer solely consist of annoying bookmaker commercials.
That alone is a vote of confidence and further proof that viewing figures are improving. Good news for those of us who, on principle, refuse to pay directly in order to watch sport on TV.
I know from my own experience that changing output that viewers feel an attachment to is a thankless task. Far better to be the launch producer of a brand new show. That way the viewers have no previous version to compare it to.
Many racing fans long for how things used to be. On Twitter they bemoan the loss of past presenters and what they recall as more entertaining coverage of racing. It could be, that’s true. But please remember, there were some Saturdays when watching the old coverage of Channel 4 racing, or the breakfast ‘Morning Line’ show, was akin to watching paint dry. John Francome wasn’t funny every week. Indeed some days he clearly wanted to be elsewhere.
I agree with Ralph Beckett that Jim McGrath is missing John Francome. Why wouldn’t he? They are mates and they had built up a fabulous double act. ‘Jimbo’ was the Ernie Wise (though with real hair) to that well known opinionated ex jockey, Eric Morecambe. Instead Jim now finds himself working with someone who is as funny as Cannon and Ball (those under 30 feel free to go Google!)
In his heyday John McCririck may have been a fine campaigning sports journalist and for years drew viewers to racing coverage. But he had lost it. He increasingly found taking direction live on air more challenging and off putting. He is more like his old self these days via www.betracingnation.com
Ralph has a point about Mick Fitzgerald not being as knowledgeable about flat racing as he is about the National Hunt code. But that’s inevitable. Fitz was a jumps jockey and a very good one. I see from my Twitter feed that Mick Fitzgerald has his critics. But I like him on air and I much prefer the McGrath/Fitzgerald combo to the McGrath/Cunningham one.
We all miss Alistair Down. But, credit where it’s due, C4 did backtrack somewhat on that one. From being cast aside totally, Down was hired to voice over VT packages for the big meetings. And, being one of the finest wordsmiths of his generation, that is a good use of his talents.
Dusting off that TV producer topper of mine I can also appreciate that Nick Luck is a very professional presenter. He smokes before he goes on air. All good presenters of times past had a fag before the red light came on! I know Nick is never going to be seen as an ‘everyman.’ He’s still seen by some as too posh. He’s not. He’s well spoken. There is a difference.
In an age when it seems you can’t get hired to appear on TV unless you do have a regional accent, I delight in watching a sports presenter who a) can speak correctly and b) hasn’t got the gig because he once won a bronze medal at tiddlywinks.
I have a very good idea of what makes for a professional broadcaster. Take my word for it, Nick Luck and Clare Balding qualify.Reading between the lines of what Ralph Beckett has said, I wonder if he favours replacing Nick Luck with ‘At The Races’ presenter Matt Chapman, whose catchprhase is Yeehaaa!
If Channel 4 hired Chapman I wouldn’t watch. I find him to be irritating in the extreme and I don’t turn on my TV to be irritated. I’m not interested in loud mouth TV awash with people yelling at me.
A presenter should have an entertaining side to his or her character. But more important is that they are knowledgeable and informed about the sport and authoritative on camera.
At Epsom I expect Ralph Beckett to have winners. And I anticipate Channel 4 racing will enjoy more ups on the Downs.
– Vernon Grant
**What say you? Leave your comments on what Ralph Beckett has to say, and the C4 racing coverage itself, via the ‘Speak Your Mind’ section below.