When I was producing some of the most popular programmes on television, my contact with viewers came courtesy of the Royal Mail. Yes, that long lost craft of letter writing that is a mystery to those who think live sports coverage began with Sky.
It was flattering to receive long letters with constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement.
I’m not sure how I would get any work done in a TV studio these days, when viewer complaints come thick and fast on Twitter.
In my series of reviews of the first 6 months of the new look Channel 4 Racing I have tried to be constructive and balanced.
Few in positions of power in TV will ever admit they are wrong. I once got told off by a boss for admitting to a studio guest that a cock up was my fault. He said: “You work in TV, it’s never your fault, it’s the fault of someone else, never say it was your fault.”
There have been cock ups on Channel 4 Racing these past 6 months and I confidently tip that there will be in the next 6 months.
People really do not get how difficult producing faultless live television can be.
[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”Right Royal cock up” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”5px” text_align=”left”]
Some C4 Racing cock ups have been more obvious than others.
My one time colleague Adrian Camm is senior cameraman. He has been walking backwards filming horses return to the winners’ enclosure for so many years now that he should hold an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.
Every badge wearing racecourse steward knows Adrian, and he calls everyone “fella.”
But that didn’t cut the mustard at Royal Ascot when Prince Andrew presented the Gold Cup to his mum.
Adrian’s path to the front of the crowd was blocked.
Clare Balding was left to look on the presentation from afar and do what she does brilliantly, fill airtime with ad lib chat.
Missing that presentation live was noticed by many on the modern day version of ‘Points of View’ known as Twitter.
It was a gaffe, but an understandable one. I have filmed numerous royal events and, take it from me, security around the Queen is tighter than an Emma Spencer dress.
[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”And they’re off” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”5px” text_align=”left”]
There were other mistakes that only a saddo like me would notice.
Following the victory of Sky Lantern in the Coronation Stakes, Balding was searching for trainer Richard Hannon. The camera zeroed in on his brother Henry. Clare knew the difference but few other people would.
By her own admittance director Denise Large says she was too quick on the draw and briefly fired up a caption that said Richard Hannon when, in fact, it was Henry that spoke.
I credit Denise for admitting to a mistake that may or may not have been of her doing.
While the Channel 4 Racing coverage at the Cheltenham Festival in March was good, I felt there was further improvement come the Aintree Grand National meeting a month later.
But it could have all worked out differently.
I understand C4 narrowly avoided a cock up that would have been featured in every newspaper review, and one that would have had the BBC sports department laughing.
I say “I understand” because I myself must have blinked and missed it. Or I momentarily looked away from my TV.
The National is often the subject of a false start or two. It seems the camera was on the excellent commentator Simon Holt up in his box a second or two before the horses jumped off, successfully, at the first attempt.
I can only imagine the uproar in print and on Twitter had Channel 4 Racing, covering their first Grand National, missed the start.
[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”Speaking from the heart” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”5px” text_align=”left”]
At Royal Ascot there were two interview situations that divided opinion.
Lady Jane Cecil trained the winner of the Ribblesdale Stakes. This came so soon after the death of her husband Sir Henry.
Interviewing the recently bereaved is never easy. Should you, shouldn’t you?
I do not agree with those on Twitter who said that Clare Balding was too intrusive or persistent when speaking to Lady Cecil in the winners’ enclosure.
I watched it live and I have watched that interview back a few times since. My opinion has not altered.
I thought Clare handled the situation tenderly, not tenaciously.
When Lady Cecil said: “What else can I say?” Balding did aim to end the interview by replying: “You need to say nothing more.”
But Lady Jane wanted to continue: “keeping busy… if we had nothing to do, we’d all fall to bits.”
Like many recently bereaved people Lady Cecil wanted to talk about her loss. I was not alone in being moved by the interview.
[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”It’s not always good to talk” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”5px” text_align=”left”]
Later in the week there was another post death interview which was more questionable.
When the horse Thomas Chippendale (above) won the Hardwicke Stakes the camera cut to the jubilant scenes in the enclosure where connections were celebrating.
But, very quickly, their joy was cut short when the horse collapsed and died of a heart attack just after the winning post.
The cutaways of the shock and sorrow of those same connections were intrusive and should not have been transmitted.
Nor should the tearful groom of the horse been asked to do an on camera interview within minutes of his beloved Thomas Chippendale dying.
The C4 response may be: “But he wanted to be interviewed. He agreed to talk and spoke well.”
Did he approach a member of the C4 team asking to be interviewed?
Somehow I doubt it.
More likely he was approached for an interview and, in his shocked state, agreed.
He handled the interview with dignity, coming so soon after he was filmed crying.
But that does not justify him being asked to talk.
[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”Racing in the dock” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”5px” text_align=”left”]
In Spring the team got lucky, if that is the word. A doping crisis provided much to talk about.
Mahmood Al Zarooni had been found guilty of using illegal drugs when training horses owned by Godolphin. Al Zarooni was swiftly banned from training racehorses in the UK.
An interview by Nick Luck put Godolphin’s Simon Crisford in the witness box and the questions were worthy of a barrister. They had to be asked and they had to be asked in such a direct fashion.
Crisford answered the questions equally frankly. It was a riveting interview.
Some of the best moments on Channel 4 Racing since January have been the big races themselves. But I have also enjoyed the impassioned studio discussions.
The often heated debates between the likes of Nick Luck, Graham Cunningham and Jim McGrath have grabbed my attention.
At Ascot there was an interesting chat about whether the fast finishing Albasharah would have won the Wolfreton Handicap with the benefit of a clear run.
The debate about the number of runners in the aformentioned race won by Sky Lantern bordered on being argumentative and was all the better TV for that.
More recently, the lengthy post mortem on the race at Newmarket that saw Elusive Kate beat Sky Lantern was fascinating, supported with replays from various angles. The result was subject to a stewards’ inquiry which itself was gripping TV and I enjoyed the subsequent studio discussion chaired by Nick Luck.
Some people responding to my earlier reviews of C4 Racing say the output is now “too serious” – they want more laughs.
But I believe that the most notable improvements in the coverage by IMG have been:-
1) A willingness to give airtime over to debate hot topics in racing
2) The actual filming of the racing itself
3) The more imaginative pre-recorded filmed packages at stables etc. They really needed a kick up the backside, and they have duly received same.
As expressed in part 3, I do have concerns about ‘The Morning Line’.
But I think the overall coverage by Channel 4 Racing has improved since January.
[symple_heading type=”h2″ title=”Coming Soon” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”5px” text_align=”left”]
Viewers must remember that this is a developing situation. The new team has been on air just over 6 months.
What on screen developments can we expect in the coming months and years?
[symple_heading type=”h3″ title=”In the sixth and final part in my series of features, Jamie Aitchison, the Head of Sport at C4 and programme producer Carl Hicks have their say.” margin_top=”10px;” margin_bottom=”5px” text_align=”left”]
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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