Channel 4 Racing, the first 6 months. Part 3

Channel 4 Racing, the first 6 months. Part 3

The Morning Line

For several years my Saturday began at 8am. With coffee and ‘The Morning Line.’

I was tuning in for the previews of the big races. The expertise on pedigree from Jim McGrath. The sardonic wit and wisdom of John Francome.

There were pedestrian episodes of the show prior to Highflyer Productions losing the contract to produce Channel 4 Racing at the turn of the year.

Television viewers tend not to remember those episodes.

We recall ‘Francs’ calling ‘Thommo’ a “prat.” Or heated arguments between John McCririck and… well, anyone.

But continuity was lacking. The role as presenter of The Morning Line would change week on week. Some weeks the show was so good I would watch it twice. Other weeks it was forgettable viewing.

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Comfortable Viewing” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”10px” text_align=”left”]

Channel 4's The Morning Line

Morning Line old set

I liked the sofa set up.  A sofa always leads to a more relaxed style of delivery from presenters and guests.

When the new look Morning Line dawned in January the set was so dark it resembled one of those VIP areas in a nightclub.

I half expected there to be a bouncer minding a rope, deciding who to let in.

I actually quite liked the dark look. But it was clearly an accident. Very soon someone switched on the lights and we could see Nick Luck.

The captions in those early days were too small. I needed a magnifying glass to read them. But such teething problems were soon rectified.

Six months on those in studio look less stiff than they did in the early weeks, though those seats still appear mighty uncomfortable. I maintain a sofa would be better.

But that might not allow a place for ‘mission control.’

For many years the normal approach for having presenters talk over action is for someone in the production gallery to press play at the time the guests are speaking about, for example, a horse in question.

It can lead to cock ups. For example, on the old version of ‘The Morning Line’, it would often be the case that the video clip would come on your screen just after the presenter had spoken about a specific horse or race.

Or they would be talking about one thing, while we were watching another.

So a decision was made to allow someone in front of camera, not behind, to press play. They would dictate when we saw the action they were talking about.

This is done via a monitor built into the desk of the set. It looks like one of those early stage video games they used to have in pubs.

But this one is much more modern. Be it Nick Luck, Graham Cunningham, Jim McGrath or Mick Fitzgerald; they get to highlight the horse(s) you are meant to be watching. They decide when to play and stop the action.

One or two members of the team have fingers that are less nimble than those of their colleagues but, more often than not, the new method works and, when deployed at its best, allows us to see something those in studio spotted during the race that we may have missed.

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Channel 4 racing new look

On the dark side. Day 1 of the new look.

It is a sad fact of life that you can take the television producer out of TV, but you cannot take TV out of the producer.

So it is that you will find me yelling proposed questions down the earpieces of presenters who are many miles from my sofa and cannot hear me. Old habits die hard.

You will also find me scribbling a revised running order for ‘The Morning Line.’

I know. More saddo than statto!

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I have one big gripe. It can be 25 minutes before the big race of the day is analysed. For me, that is way too late.

The thinking of the producer may be thus: ‘Keep them waiting for the big race previews as that way they’ll watch all the show. If we transmit race previews early, they’ll turn off once they have been aired.’

The ‘Gods’ of television production who were my mentors always taught me to “grab the viewer by the bollocks.” Have your best material at the start of the show.

That way you pull them in and they will hang around for more. It is a policy I followed myself as a producer of live programmes for C4, ITV, BBC and SKY.

Some weeks I am switching off ‘The Morning Line’ before they have got to the big race previews. I want to hear what McGrath fancies in the big race. I want to watch the voice over package from Alastair Down.

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Frankie Dettori returns to racing after ban vg tips

He’s back.. yawn!

I do not want to hear yet another discussion built around a jockey who is past his best before date.

What is it with Channel 4 Racing and Frankie Dettori? Their obsession with mentioning the man is televised stalking.

I get why they talked about him when he was banned and to him when he returned to action.

But, like some of the racing press, they became fixated on whether he rides one winner, or umpteen losers.

Post Godolphin, he is just another jockey. Not worthy of any more or less coverage than any other jockey. I understood the annoyance displayed by some less high profile, hard working jockeys who, via Twitter, expressed their dismay about ‘Frankievision.’

When you have Frankie Dettori as a guest on ‘The Morning Line’ get him to analyse the racing, not himself. He’s at his best when giving his opinion on horses, not drugs.

The doping of horses scandal was handled superbly by Channel 4 Racing. Nick Luck was dogged in his interviews with those who run the sport.

The discussions about the Al Zarooni scandal both in between the races and on ‘The Morning Line’, was riveting television.

A real strength of the new team has been evident when the likes of Luck, McGrath and Cunningham have been given ample airtime to debate issues that matter.

Personally, in weeks when the racing is high profile and has us core racing viewers salivating in expectation, I would go straight into the preview of the big race of the day. Shift the review of the racing week down to the start of part two.

In weeks when the racing news is ‘bigger’ than the racing on offer that day, start the show with that news and any follow on discussion.

But don’t have us wait between 20 and 25 minutes before you talk about what we are tuning in for. The feature race you are showing later that day.

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The official viewing figures for ‘The Morning Line’ shows during Royal Ascot were published. 200.000 was the peaking viewing figure. Not good.

While the costs of producing that programme will be amortised courtesy of the same set and people being at the same racecourse later that day, 200.000 viewers spells trouble to me.

Channel 4 could still decide to save costs by axing ‘The Morning Line.’

Or only transmitting it during Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood, and the Grand National.

Let me be clear. I do not want to see that happen.

But the very fact that I, a long term viewer, no longer cares whether or not he sees ‘The Morning Line’ should ring alarm bells with those in charge at C4.

If Twitter is to believed, I’m not alone in having a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to a show that was once a personal appointment to view.

Some Saturday mornings I feel guilty. Why am I not rushing to watch the Morning Line?

I think it is great that racing has a preview programme dedicated to the sport. An hour long show that is able to call on the knowledge and presentation skills of a good team of people.

Tanya Stevenson minus the Mac

Tanya Stevenson minus the Mac

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Many minutes of previously wasted airtime have been recovered by getting rid of the incoherent and often irrelevant to racing ramblings of McCririck.

A few more minutes could be saved by also ditching the latest incarnation of a quiz, “A Mug’s Game.” Leave limp quizzes to limp game shows. It’s where they belong.

Airtime is precious. A producer rarely has enough minutes. We always bemoan how we “could have done with another five minutes.”

So this viewer humbly suggests better use of the minutes available.

Aim to please those of us who love racing.

Don’t waste time asking us to tweet about hats. Fans of fashion will only watch Channel 4 Racing once or twice a year.

It’s the racing fans who watch the other fifty weeks of the year that you need to please the most.

A niche show like such as ‘The Morning Line’ is never going to have a million viewers.

But if it is to survive, it sorely needs to retain those who have been loyal to it for years.

Next up, in part 4, my school report on the presentation team.

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

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4 Comments

  1. Matt Adams 7 years ago

    Racing as we know it – funded by bookmakers, is on its last legs. Bookmakers don’t need racing, and punters certainly don’t. Racing has to stand on its own two feet, just like other sports, and why not, it has a huge amount to offer. It needs to be promoted like other sports, properly presented by people with great passion and knowledge. Unfortunately, you may say, other sports coverage has taught us that the great British public like nothing more than their sports interest to be personality driven.
    C4 coverage needs to be aimed at current racing fans and converting other sports fans to racing. How many other sports are presented with such a large amount of boring statistics and betting news? That’s what kills off a lot of potential future racing fans. Let’s make programmes about the SPORT , the HORSES, and the PEOPLE involved, let’s have passionate presenters, Yes, Down, Thompson, McCrirrick, Francome, Carson, Scott, are all ideal, Luck, perhaps not. There is a wealth of presenting talent out there, so why fill our screens with dull people like Stevenson and Lee?
    Of course, there is a place for the stats and betting, but that is on the specialist channels, not on terrestrial television.

    • Author
      Vern 7 years ago

      Hello Matt,
      Thanks for leaving a comment.
      Leave the pessimism to me Matt. I have copyright on that!
      I hope you are wrong and that racing is not on its last legs.
      I have now lived long enough to see its demises forecast many times, but the great sport survives.
      Racing doesn’t have feet to stand on without the bookies and those who run the sport leave something to be desired.
      True that we live in a society obsessed with so called personalities. Or, as I like to call them, non-entities.
      C4 certainly must not forget their core viewers by having too much fashion etc. A difficult balance to keep existing, attract new people while not losing long
      term viewers. Never easy that one, as I know only too well from my 25 years in TV.
      Many people responding to my C4 articles are demanding more betting news and information. Not less.
      I am all for seeing even more features on the horses, owners, trainers, stable lads and lassies etc.
      One thing I do know is that we need to protect racing on terrestrial television.
      If racing can only be watched by paying a subscription, then the chances of attracting new fans is greatly diminished.
      Vernon

  2. Geoff Banks 7 years ago

    Channel 4’s commitment to the sport and what I’ve seen from the odd visit evidences a great passion from those involved – and Racing is lucky to have high profile broadcaster – and an experienced producer
    But, I do disagree with the focus on form and races. There are plenty of highbrow racing channels going through such matters in detail. What I think isn’t fully understood (and I’m as guilty as anyone over this) is people just don’t understand form. How many ‘pounds well in’ or ‘the draw’ is totally foreign to 99% of new viewers. They’re simply not interested. They read the racecard’s two sentences on each runner and have a bet. They’re going to sit through a show discussing form in such detail – or an afternoon show of the same. No sorry I disagree.

    The ‘new’ viewer is the casual racegoer. He’s going racing for two purposes. Enjoy the atmosphere- have a bet. To him-her betting represents the fun in the sport. The battle with those evil bookies. How to bet, how much are the bookies losing. Stick a camera under a bookies nose when he’s done his brains and ask him how much he’s lost! Get the cameras in the ring where the people congregate.

    Having seen the show’s preps – the amount of money thrown at it and met one or two of the decision makers- I don’t believe for one second they’ll let anything fail.

  3. Dave Braimbridge 7 years ago

    Good artical Vern, Agree too much time spent on trivia and daft quiz! Got to admit not Nick Luck fan, Like Jim and Graham trying to sort a winner out in the main races, though at times they overdo the support for each other when it is obvious they disagree on the likely winner. Also think Tanya has been pushed out on the sidelines when they forget to lots of fans racing is purely a betting medium and the prestige of races come second. But on the whole the loss of McCririk and the new format has been an improvement with the exception of the loss of Alastair Down, in which the new team lost one oftheir best assets
    Dave

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