Channel 4 Racing boss bullish despite disappointing viewing figures for the Derby

Channel 4 Racing boss bullish despite disappointing viewing figures for the Derby

Alarm bells must be ringing at the news of falling viewing figures for the Channel 4 coverage of the Derby. The numbers are down. Dramatically so.

The Guardian newspaper reports that viewing figures for C4 Racing on Saturday peaked at an audience of 1.55 million and an audience share of 14.7%.

The respective figures 12 months earlier were 1.95 million and an audience share of 21.8%.

Last Friday, for coverage of the Oaks, the figures were also down on last year. The peak viewing figure was 558.000. Twelve months earlier it was 788.000.

Channel 4 may say that the viewing figures for the Oaks meeting on Friday were down because much of the UK was bathed in sunshine. But they cannot say that about Saturday when, as I understood it, large parts of the country were wet, wet, wet.

 

You don’t have to be Carol Vorderman to know these figures are disappointing.

jamie aitchison is head of sport at channel 4 and talks about racing on television

Jamie Aitchison

The C4 commissioning editor for sport, Jamie Aitchison, was quick to defend the coverage and, quite rightly, publicly support his production team. However, comparing the figures to those for the Formula 1 practice session are comments that have been seized upon by his critics.

Here’s what Jamie said: “I’m pleased with the high-quality coverage from the Channel 4 Racing team over two glorious days at the Investec Derby Festival.

“Despite there being live sport across all four main terrestrial channels, Australia’s win in the Derby was watched by a bigger peak audience than the French Open Ladies’ Final, the Challenge Cup Rugby and the Formula 1 practice session.”

Inevitably there are those who have an axe to grind about the “new look” coverage that began in January 2013. That includes axed presenter Derek Thompson who, via his Twitter feed, said: “Viewing figures for Derby on C4 lowest this century! C4 spokesman ‘pleased’!! What do you think?”

And bookmaker Barry Dennis – another man not kept on by the new production company – said: “J Aitchinson spin is pathetic CH 4 has lost its way IMG rethink or sponsors will pull out, 1000’s of viewers have had enough.”

 

I know well that those axed from TV programmes will waste no opportunity to twist the knife when viewing figures drop.

Everyone will have their say. Some will put the boot in. I think at this point I should probably outline my own credentials, albeit briefly, for those who do not know my background and my own approach to the statistics of television viewing.

During my 25 years in television production I took less notice of viewing figures than anyone I knew. I had only two exceptions. My attitude to figures was always this.
If figures are low at a time of day when they should be high, worry. If viewing figures for your show are very high at a time of day when, traditionally, they are low; by all means pat yourself on the back, have a drink and see if your boss was telling the truth when he’d say ‘my door is always open.’ Show him the figures and demand a pay rise.

I have produced networked television programmes in both situations and, for the record, in the multi media age.

I first worked on racing and football coverage for ITV in 1980. I was at the launch bash for Channel 4 in 1982, having worked on the ‘pilot’ for the first programme on Channel 4, ‘Countdown.’

 

Prior to escaping to sunny Spain in 2005 on the back of a magnificent 7 years of profitable punting; I produced regular live shows for Sky Sports and Sky Sports News.

Before that, back in the age of only four channels, my bosses in TV lived and breathed viewing figures. They very often would not have seen the programme in question. They cared only for the stats that landed on their desk the following week. I thought this policy was nonsensical. Especially so when VHS won the day over Betamax (a terrible day for technology) and people experimented like crazy with recording programmes and watching them when they saw fit.

Now that we have six billion channels and people watch TV on their mobile telephone (sad, but true), how credible or meaningful are viewing figures?

I suspect my way of thinking back in the day remains almost as true today as it did then. Perhaps even more so. Namely, if the viewers are watching in big numbers when they should be asleep (in my case, ‘James Whale Show’ 1988-91 or ‘Under the Moon’ 1997), or they are turning off when they used to turn on, TV executives need to sit up and take notice.

Clare Balding joins th enew look Channel 4 racing team

Clare Balding

I have no doubt that the ultimate powers that be at Channel 4 will be alarmed at this reported drop in viewing figures. Meetings will be had. Concerns will be raised.

As I said back in January 2013, the future of C4 Racing will be dictated not so much by viewing figures but by advertising spend. Of course, one can dictate the other. If people are not watching in sufficient numbers, companies will choose to advertise in alternative ad breaks.

Barry Dennis is right to suggest that the sponsors of the Derby, Investec, will also be concerned at the low viewing figures for the race. They may not say so publicly, but they will be troubled by this development.

It is easy for armchair spectators to criticise television coverage of any sport. Expectations of the viewing public have increased massively since my former colleagues at Sky Sports transformed TV coverage of football. Viewers have always expressed their opinion but, in the age of social media, it has never been easier for them to do so.

Before then, at the time when I was producing anything from sports, light entertainment shows, documentaries, news programmes and other output; my mailbag (them were the days) would be full of letters of complaint and praise in equal measure. Everyone thought they could produce TV better than I could. One person would hate a certain feature or presenter. The next letter opened was full of praise for the same aspect of the programme.

 

In television you cannot please all the people all of the time. But you have to please enough of them, enough of the time. When lots of people expressed the same complaint or criticism, I took notice. C4 must do likewise.

When one viewer complains about this presenter or that feature, you can brush it off. When thousands complain about certain aspects of a programme, and persist in doing so for 18 months, then it might be time to ditch the hubris and, in a considered fashion, address the most common criticisms.

What you must not do is pander to every moan and groan. For every viewer will have his or her own grumble and a TV producer is fatally wounded if allowing viewers to call the shots.

Too often those who complain about a television show have no idea how to improve things. I used to ask them: “OK then, what would you do and how would you go about converting those changes to actual output?” The answer was often a blank stare.

I know only too well that it takes time for viewers to forget what went before and take to their hearts what is effectively a relaunched programme. Sometimes they never do so. In television, 18 months is not a long time to have viewers accept so many changes. I believe the Channel 4 racing coverage produced by IMG should be judged after three years on the air.

In my earlier article (published at VG TIPS on May 27th) I had hoped that the good figures for the Aintree Grand National meeting back in April was proof that sofa spectators were warming to Channel 4 racing coverage. These latest figures suggest my hopes have been dashed.

channel 4 racing goes on the road

The mobile Channel 4 studio

Those who care about the great sport (the viewers/punters), and those who help fund its TV coverage (the advertisers), will demand improvements. But the baby must not be thrown out with the bath water. And I don’t believe it will be.

Producer Carl Hicks has brought in some innovations that viewers are already taking for granted. Denise Large continues to direct coverage of the actual races with a fine eye for detail.

If I have problems with the IMG coverage of the sport they are with what comes before the main feature, the Saturday ‘Morning Line’ show.

For me the programme no longer does what it used to do. Namely whet my appetite for the afternoon racing. On the morning of the Derby, the greatest flat race in the world, I found the programme to be uninspiring.

Others who care have suggested moving the show back to 9am, and that may indeed encourage more viewers on Saturday morning. Frankly, I think the show requires big changes to its content. It lacks fizz, fun and features that keep me watching. It can be painfully pedestrian.

The taped inserts, talking at home to trainers or filmed at stables, have been better than they were under the old regime. No question.

But the best minutes of the new look ‘Morning Line’ were when they gave sufficient time to David Walsh, the award winning investigative sports journalist from The Sunday Times.

When Jamie Aitchison awarded IMG the contract to produce all the C4 coverage, we were promised more of this sort of content. A more journalistic feel to the output.

 

So, please, lets have more of it. The Morning Line should be waking me up and not sending me to sleep. It needs a kick up the backside.

The programme will not of itself be an expensive production. Using the same mobile studio for that show as for the afternoon racing coverage ensures that some costs can be amortised. The studio facilities and the crew are going to be there regardless, so you can eke another hour of TV from them in the morning.

The crew with presenter Rishi Persad.

The hard working crew with presenter Rishi Persad.

Before IMG took charge certain ‘perks’ were withdrawn from the hard working crew. I was saddened to learn late in 2012 that breakfast was no longer provided free of charge. The crew had to now buy their own. You may be saying “Well I have to buy my own breakfast, so why shouldn’t they?”

But the crew that work on C4 racing have done so for many years. They are a loyal and devoted bunch. They turn up on site at dawn, often in freezing cold or wet weather. Without them going the extra mile many a memorable shot would have never have been transmitted into your living room.

For them to be told they had to buy their own breakfast did not go down well. Such penny pinching in TV has been rife since accountants took control of the industry. But it was the wrong kind of saving and one that led to some long lasting and understandable resentment.
Producing television is very much a team effort. A good and happy film crew is all important.

There were mitigating factors as to why viewing figures were down on Saturday. While the World Cup has not begun, there were several other events for sports fans to watch on the day. Some people are simply that. Fans of sport as a whole and not racing in particular. They may have opted to watch something else.

 

For the record, I found the Channel 4 racing coverage of the Oaks on Friday and the Derby on Saturday to be excellent. But my fear is that the days of racing being covered on terrestrial television are numbered.

Taghrooda wins the Derby

Taghrooda wins the Oaks

I hope the Derby, Royal Ascot, the Grand National and the Cheltenham Festival remain on free to air television for the rest of my lifetime. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

So much of the racing these days is, frankly, dross. Criticise Channel 4 for aspects of their coverage if you wish, but applaud them for covering racing each weekend. They have displayed continued commitment to the sport. The BBC did not. I do wonder how long Channel 4 will stick with the sport should viewers continue to watch racing by other means.

We cannot blame Channel 4 or IMG for the abundance of poor quality racing. They are trying to drag coverage of the sport into the current century. Do I like or agree with every aspect of their coverage? No, I do not. I scream at the telly when I think they are getting things wrong.

But I also yell back at those who take for granted the sheer quality of the race coverage itself, and what it takes to bring that to your television screen. On Derby day I enjoyed the coverage of the racing itself. It was the sport seen at its best. But, if social media moans are to be believed, it is some of the laboured content around the races that drives viewers away.

My concern for some time has been this. If the terrestrial coverage of horse racing is no longer appointment to view television for me, a lifelong follower of the sport, how on earth will new viewers be attracted to watch?

 

Like Clare Balding before me, I’m now cherry picking when I engage with Channel 4 racing.

On Saturday’s I decide whether to watch the ‘Morning Line’ based on the guests trailed and which two ‘experts’ are in studio.
I choose which actual racing coverage to watch based on the quality of the meetings being televised. Five years ago, each Saturday, you could find me watching Channel 4 coverage of average race meetings from the less high profile racecourses. Now I don’t. I will simply watch, online, specific races involving horses I have tipped to members of my VG Tips selections service. But I don’t blame Channel 4 for that.

Because of my many years producing live television, new shows and relaunched ones, I can see what they are trying to do and I perhaps have more patience as a result. In part I do blame the BBC. The corporation threw in the towel, consigning to a skip decades of race coverage experience (while throwing millions of licence fee pounds at covering a one off event).

You’ll not get anyone working at a high level in television to admit they have got something wrong. One boss of mine caught me apologising to a guest for an avoidable cock up. The boss pulled me into his office on the Monday morning. He said: “Never apologise to a guest or viewer, Vernon. We work in TV. We are never wrong.”

Yes, you’re right, he was a dickhead. Albeit an award winning dickhead! But his attitude was prevalent in broadcast television and, for all I know, it still is.

 

Channel 4 will have to tinker with their coverage. They should listen to the viewers. But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. At least not week in, week out.

People appear to be more concerned with the Channel 4 racing viewing figures than they are with the sickness infecting the sport itself. The product is not good enough. For each Group 1 event there are countless meetings offering low grade racing. More and more races have fewer and fewer horses competing.

Despite the best efforts of some good, well intentioned people the sport does not regularly excite enough people enough of the time to make them go racing for the racing.

Attracting people to a racecourse to watch Madness or Tom Jones is all very well. But it doesn’t make racing fans of them. Nor does offering them alcohol without the need for them to go to the bar.

 

Racing now attracts more people to a course to get pissed than it does to punt.

pissed punter at bookies stall aintree Rod Street and his team should be congratulated for implementing simple things like bigger number cloths on the horses so fans in the stand can see how their horse is doing. And I am all for the employment of so called ‘Racemakers.’ People who can help the uninitiated with understanding and enjoying the sport more and showing them how to place a bet.

But Rod and his team at Great British Racing are powerless to do anything about the quantity of piss poor race meetings that take place each year. Meetings I would not pay to enter with stolen money.

And those who run the sport, whose strings are operated by the big bookmakers, seem intent on giving us more of the same. Low grade tosh. Racecards with a total number of runners that require little more than your fingers and toes to count.
Instead we are promised the ripping up of other turf tracks so that we can revel in yet more all weather racing the likes of which Wolverhampton racecourse delivers with mind numbing regularity.

I came to racing as a child and thanks to the enthusiasm of my father. If he couldn’t afford the entry cost for a family of six, we’d sit on the hill above Goodwood and share a pair of binoculars. He sure as hell could not have got his four boys into the Epsom grandstand on Derby day. For so many years children under a certain age have been admitted into racecourses free of charge. What did Epsom do last weekend?

John Cobb of the Racing Post reveals: “Epsom charged £30 per child from the age of 5. That would appear to be something of a deterrent, as not a single family with children in the 5-17 age range could be seen in the grandstand on Saturday.”

 

What the hell were those who make such decisions at Epsom racecourse thinking of? Ah yes, greed is good. Well it isn’t for the future of racing.

For me and many others the real turn off about racing right now is not Emma Spencer teetering around in high heels asking inane questions of winning jockeys. It’s not Graham Cunningham making love to the camera while rehearsing Christmas cracker jokes.

John McCririck is sacked by Channel 4 racing

Big Mac will not be back

You can all call for John McCririck to return if that’s what you want. It ain’t going to happen. He sued the channel. Do you seriously think they would employ him again?

We all wish John Francome didn’t prefer building walls to appearing on TV. But he does. He said so and he chose to leave, he wasn’t axed.
We all miss the wordsmith Alistair Down in front of camera, even if he did have a face for radio. But the producers had their reasons for reducing his input to voice over, pre-recorded video packages. I’m just grateful he survives in that form, albeit too rarely.

I know that for many of you it is all about the presenters. But for me the challenge facing IMG and Channel 4 is much bigger than that. And one the BBC would have also faced had they not run for the hills.

For me the problem is as much about the profile of racing as a sport as it is about the coverage of same. In my opinion the issue we all need to be concerned about is the quality of racing itself.

You could get the supposedly most popular presenters in the country to present Channel 4 racing, but Ant & Dec saying “Welcome to Epsom” wouldn’t result in viewing figures soaring. You could get the most beautiful woman in the world to walk naked alongside Ryan Moore as he enters the winners’ enclosure and ask him: “how was the ground?” I still don’t think the viewing figures would shoot up (though it might bring a smile to Ryan’s face!).

I know some of you reading my conclusion below will want to remind me of the headline attendance figures at Lingfield and Musselburgh for the first Good Friday race meetings. The day the UK was bathed in sunshine rarely experienced at Easter. But one sun kissed day at the races should not place in the shade an unpalatable truth.

 

It is racing itself that is losing its appeal with the masses. As with the quality of Saturday night television, and the size of Wagon Wheels, it simply ain’t what it used to be.

**

That’s my view. What is yours? Let me know via the ‘Speak Your Mind’ section below.

4 Comments

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  3. Rod Thorpe 6 years ago

    One word says it all,terrible! Bring back the old successful team and see the viewers return in droves,can’t wait .

  4. Mike Langdon 6 years ago

    CH4 racing is bloody awful. Balding/Persad/Cunningham need sacking.

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