Channel 4 Racing, the first 6 months. Part 2.

Channel 4 Racing, the first 6 months. Part 2.
channel 4 racing covers horse racing all over the UK

Adrian Camm, senior Channel 4 Racing cameraman. Photo by Michael Harris

Credit where it’s due

Having thrown some ‘Brix-bats’ (sic) around in part 1 of my review of the first six months of the new look Channel 4 Racing, I now turn my attention to more serious issues

First, let me make one thing clear.

[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”Channel 4 should be congratulated on their continuing commitment to the sport” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”10px” text_align=”left”]

Covering every single race of the five day Royal Ascot meeting was just one example. The latest news, that the station will broadcast live the Prix de l’arc de Triomphe from France in October, is further evidence. That proves their dedication to the sport we love and I congratulate all concerned.

Channel 4 picked up the baton dropped by the BBC.

If the Andy Murray win at Wimbledon proved one thing about televised coverage of sport, it is that we must cherish and protect those sporting fixtures that Sky have yet to get their grubby hands on.

[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”Number Crunching & Creative Accounting” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”10px” text_align=”left”]

When I entered television in 1980 it was an industry run by creative people.

My boss for many years was Sir Paul Fox, the man who created the BBC Saturday sports show ‘Grandstand.’

Twelve years later, when I left Yorkshire TV to go freelance, the industry was run by accountants. Young men in sharp suits would question why I took the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition to “such an expensive restaurant.”

Such number crunchers are now too often the puppet masters in TV. They have the power to have a television show cancelled. Not based on the programme content, but on what their spreadsheet tells them.

The official viewing figures released for the coverage of those five days of racing at Royal Ascot will not make good reading for those who think TV programmes should be produced using an abacus.

I produced programmes that had 18 million viewers and I produced programmes which had fewer than a million people watching. My attitude to viewing figures was always a sceptical one. People in TV put too much store by them. In this multi channel age viewing figures are more meaningless than ever. People watch when they want, not when they have to.

I always believed that the only time to take viewing figures seriously was if a show at peak time was getting very low figures. Or if a show buried in the early hours of the morning was attracting a high audience. I have produced both.

gina bryce is now presenting for channel 4 racing

Gina Bryce, one of the newer members of C4 Racing

The statistics say that in April the Channel 4 viewing figures for their first transmission of the Aintree Grand National compared favourably with past BBC coverage. Their peak of 8.9 million viewers exceeded BBC figures for 2011, 2010 and 2009.

Viewing figures for day one of their Royal Ascot transmission revealed that 900.000 people watched the St. James’s Palace Stakes. Or, in TV speak, a 14% audience share.

The average viewing figure that day was 600.000, or an 8% share.

On the same day of racing in 2012, the BBC declared a peak figure of 1.5 million and an average of 1 million viewers.

The Frankel factor has been used to suggest why the BBC got so many more viewers a year ago. But the difference between actual attendance at the course for Frankel in 2012, and those who showed up this year is tiny. So it is debatable if the absence of Frankel is to blame for lower C4 viewing figures.

For its last transmissions of events such as the Grand National and Royal Ascot the BBC got higher figures than in past years. Many extra people tuned in purely because these were the last opportunities to watch racing on the Beeb.  So comparing the first year of C4 with the last year of BBC coverage is not a reliable comparison.

[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”Time Please” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”10px” text_align=”left”]

Over several years people got used to watching racing on the BBC.

If anyone thinks that mindset can be corrected in just six months, they do not understand television viewing.

But there is something Channel 4 could do to help matters.

Stop those oh so clever, oh so expensive promos they delivered prior to, for example, Royal Ascot and the Aintree Grand National meeting.

Promo producers have always been too clever for their own good.

controversial channel 4 promotions for grand national racing

A promo for the Grand National. Photo by C4

I shudder to think how much it cost to film racehorses jumping through greenhouses or stately homes.

As for the promo that had two at rest motorway policeman startled by the briefest glimpse of horse flesh, this took subtlety to a whole new level!

“Is that the new government speeding campaign?” asked one mystified friend.

“No” I had to explain: “It is to tell you that racing is on Channel 4.”

I have an idea for those at C4 who wish to attract more viewers to racing.

How about a trail that includes racing action?

A close and exciting finish. Or that great shot of Richard Hughes caressing the ear of Sky Lantern. Or the commentary of Simon Holt when Estimate won for the Queen.

Something that spells out to the uninitiated just how exciting this sport can be.

Go back to basics.

[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”Come on Down!” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”10px” text_align=”left”]

You have now relented and employ the much missed Alastair Down to record voice over packages. So why not get him to write and recite a promo script that is sure to have the hairs on the neck rise in unison. And, like the best voice overs for movies, attract people to watch the main feature.

That way you spell out the message in simple and illustrative terms.

And you save a small fortune on too clever for their own good promos that require a cast of hundreds, but fail in getting the message across to the very people you seek to entice.

Your coverage of the actual racing is excellent. While many on Twitter are rightly complaining about the lack of pre-race paddock shots; the filmed coverage of the racing is better than ever.

The race commentaries are superior to what we had to listen to on the BBC.

Channel 4 Racing needs more viewers and more fee paying advertisers. The latter are the lifeblood of any programme on commercial television.

The commercials department at C4 need to attract more companies to promote their wares during the commercial breaks.

ronnie corbett wiltshire farm foodsThe big meetings attracted the likes of insurance companies, cruise holidays, banks and Wiltshire Farm Foods (is Ronnie Corbett hard up, or what?).

But on a more typical Saturday of racing, and even for the latest July meeting at Newmarket, the commercial breaks consisted of little more than ads for bookies, the Racing Post newspaper and a satellite TV station that broadcasts racing. If you need to take money from a competitor that seeks to steal your viewers, then clearly the world of advertising is not bashing down your door.

When reviewers write about Channel 4 Racing so much of the attention is on the big meetings. The Cheltenham Festival, the Grand National and Royal Ascot.

But the success of the service the rest of the year is every bit as important.

I can envisage the day when a Saturday race meeting from Ripon, Musselburgh or Kempton is no longer available on terrestrial television.

A time when only the fashionable meetings are available to us free of charge.

I don’t want to see that happen.

[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”What Does the Future Hold?” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”10px” text_align=”left”]
Mick Fitzgerald reports for channel 4 racing

Mick Fitzgerald in action. Photo by Rishi Persad

The future of Channel 4 Racing will not be decided by those of us who rant on Twitter. Bums on sofas, and how many companies are prepared to pay a good rate to advertise during the coverage, will have a greater say than those of us who love the sport.

It is too early to make sweeping judgements about viewing figures. I never expected that Channel 4 would be able to attract the same numbers as the BBC.

After all, the Beeb could use two channels and the red button to air racing.

The coverage of racing on Channel 4 is in good hands. Experienced and talented producers, directors and camera crews. They will give it everything.

Whether it is enough will depend on other factors.

Is the quality of the racing itself good enough, often enough, to make people want to watch?

Will the bosses at C4 reconsider how it spends the budget allotted to promoting the programming?

And will the size of advertising spend during the commercial breaks outgrow Ronnie Corbett?

If not, it will be goodnight from him and, heaven forbid, goodnight from them.

Next up, in part 3, my review of ‘The Morning Line.’

(In the meantime, feel free to leave your comments below)

[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”More articles on Channel 4 Racing” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”5px” text_align=”left”]
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