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”]
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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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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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.
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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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