Channel 4 Racing – credit where it’s due

Channel 4 Racing – credit where it’s due
channel 4 racing is relaunched with  a new look presentation team and gadgets

New year, new team

I have produced enough new or new look television programmes to know that all such ventures take time to mature.

You really should not judge a TV show by its first airing. But to hell with that!

The twittersphere has been awash with AP’s (that’s armchair, and not assistant producers). So let me pull up a seat and join them as they tweet instant critiques of the new look Channel 4 racing coverage.

Carl Hicks is an Executive Producer with a fine pedigree and he will know that few of us like to see a favourite programme on the receiving end of a facelift. Even if we did put a boot into that face from time to time.

I imagine Hicks may have been tempted to kick the cat when, on New Year’s Day, a spanner was thrown into the works of the relaunch he oversaw. The meeting at Cheltenham was called off. That left Channel 4 with racing from Musselburgh and lots of time to get to know each other.

It was all very casual. The dress sense I mean. The gents wore open necked shirts to make them seem like boys, not men. And betting guru Tanya Stevenson reverted back to the tomboy look to make her seem more like one of the boys.

I felt for Tanya that day. She gets plenty of criticism on Twitter but Tanya does know her stuff and, when relaxed, is a positive booking. But her position on the edge of set made her look like she was an intruder who was trying to get in camera shot.

Like one of those annoying fools who used to make faces while standing behind her departed on air partner John McCririck.

By the way, why does someone who left home that morning feel the need to call home and say “can you see me on telly?”

 

Graham Cunningham made his first appearance on Channel 4 racing that day and, unlike some armchair producers, I like what he has to offer. I like his voice and his opinions. He lacks comic timing but has thankfully mainly erased the annoying habit of looking down the camera lens when being interviewed.

The new team had new toys to play with. The touch screen TV built into the desk of the new look set didn’t excite me on that first day. But it did allow Graham to show us in fine detail, and using super slo-mo, how a certain horse performed. That was interesting and informative.

‘The Morning Line’ is the popular Saturday morning show that previews the racing that day and we got to see the new face of that show on January 5th.

Well some of us did!

Many viewers expressing their opinions on Twitter remarked on how dark the set was. The bookie Barry Dennis even changed his television to see if the problem was at his end. It wasn’t.

I actually liked the dark, sultry appearance of Nick Luck in part one.

True, it did look as though it was being filmed in a brothel late at night, rather than Sandown at breakfast time. But I’ve filmed in many a brothel and have no problem with that!

By part two those in the production gallery had seen the light.

Either the sun rose at Sandown or the floor manager had sent the ‘runner’ (these days known as the assistant to the assistant unpaid intern) to B&Q to buy some light bulbs.

Channel 4 racing new look

Lights out!

This ensured we could all see the trio of presenters and, what do you know?

There was no more getting shirty. The men were wearing sweaters and looked more comfortable as a result.

Some people simply aren’t met to be in front of camera in shirt only and chief presenter Nick Luck, and the most knowledgeable member of the team, Jim McGrath, are two such men

Tanya, meanwhile, was back out on the turf doing what she enjoys most, talking to fellow followers of the betting market while dressed in a hat stolen from Robin Hood.

Use of a big desk rather than a sofa does make the Saturday morning programme look less relaxed. But maybe that is deliberate.

For all we enjoyed the banter between the likes of the now departed John Francome, John McCririck and Derek Thompson, race analysis could get lost on the old look ‘Morning Line.’

The big loss, in every sense, is the absence of one of the finest sports journalists of our time.

And I am clearly far from alone in thinking that sending this Denman of racing reporting out to stud is the biggest mistake made by Jamie Aitchison, Sports Editor at Channel 4.

 

I speak of Alastair Down who may not have a face for television, but he did have a presence. He presented and interviewed well and, if knowledge truly is power, then his departure is a mighty loss to racing coverage on terrestrial TV.

The new set looks too much like something I would expect on a cable or satellite channel. One punter on Twitter called it a mobile burger van.

That’s unfair, but I would rather have a sofa and good race analysis. That is what we punters watch the programme for.

A Saturday morning show about racing on terrestrial TV should be in a less stiff looking setting, but be authoritative when it comes to content.

And the editorial content of the new look ‘The Morning Line’ was better. No question.

 

The on screen opening titles and on set graphics were better. I don’t like the opening music and would, if possible, have retained the much more upbeat previous theme. But please! No more music packages aimed at the ‘yoof’ TV audience.

On day one I loathed the on screen blue graphics, but they may grow on me. But only if they grow in size.

Twitter reassured me that I was not about to have something in common with Stevie Wonder. I saw so many viewers complaining that they couldn’t read the small lettering (though there is no truth that Barry Dennis nipped out to buy a new 50 inch TV).

Graham Cunningham and Jim McGrath were given more time to analyse racing, which was good. Nick Luck will get the hang of the touch screen device eventually – though it will remain painful to watch him hit the wrong button in the meantime. Older viewers will remember ‘The Golden Shot’ and I was shouting at the TV “Nick… left a bit, right a bit, fire”!

Tina Turner’s hit Steamy Windows should have been used to accompany at least one action sequence. After all, the windows behind Nick Luck only lacked the presence of a heart with the initials PN loves CS written within (come on, work it out!)

My spirits rose when I realised the old stager, the so called ‘Guest Test’, had finally run out of stamina and been sent off to learn dressage.

Then my heart sank when I realised there was a new upstart on set. ‘A Mug’s Game’ would now be the cornerstone of light entertainment on ‘The Morning Line.’

Why?

Have we not consigned the days of ‘3-2-1’ television to a dusty bin?

 

Do any viewers who are not into racing tune in to this programme just to see a brief and silly quiz? No.

Do ‘The Morning Line’ regular viewers want it? Judging from remarks sent to Channel 4 racing on Twitter, clearly not.

The star attraction came later that day with the first big day of racing for the new look Channel 4 coverage, including the Welsh National at Chepstow.

But those viewers waiting to see the ubiquitous Clare Balding present were to be disappointed.

Though C4 are understandably using her voice, face and name to brand and promote the fresh coverage, Clare is only signed up to present a limited number of programmes throughout the year.

Clare Balding joins th enew look Channel 4 racing team

Coming to a TV screen near you soon – again!

Clare is a professional broadcaster and one now very much in demand. She doesn’t go racing much. I doubt she has time.

Writing bestselling books, walking with her dog on BBC Radio 4, appearances on ‘Loose Women’ and now the host of some not so clever show about clever people, the greatest threat to her TV career is overexposure (often referred to in TV circles as ‘doing a Smilie or a Vorderman’).

You will see Clare on Channel 4 at meetings where fascinators and hats outnumber horses. As you shall her erstwhile BBC colleague Rishi Persad.

He did make his first appearance on Channel 4 racing, handed the role of asking breathless jockeys how it felt to win (I long for the day when one replies: “the horse is shite and we were lucky to win”).

As a TV producer I’d love to get hold of Rishi and stretch him. Not literally, of course. Numerous women tell me he looks just fine as he is.

I mean give him more to do. Or to see what he does know about racing. I believe he has much more to offer than the BBC ever gave him the chance to prove. I’m convinced he is more than a pretty face, but is too often employed in a very lightweight manner.

Gina Bryce has joined the on air C4 team and though we saw little of her on the first full day of Saturday racing in 2013, what we saw was good. She was a confident presenter with a pleasant on air manner, asked winning trainers and owners sensible questions and looks to be a good addition to the team.

Having the studio set in front of glass not only ensured that Jim McGrath could leave the thermal underwear back in Yorkshire, it also meant we got to see the horses arriving back after racing behind him and co-presenter Cunningham.

I for one was delighted to see a return to jacket and tie presentation. This is racing, not football. Call me old fashioned by all means (I would be suitably flattered) but I don’t want my presenters in shirt sleeves. Credibility dictates a smart on air appearance and we got just that.

 

For many years Jim McGrath had an excellent on air relationship with his friend John Francome and though Graham Cunningham cannot, like Francome, claim to have been a seven times champion jockey, there were enough signs to believe that the new double act could work well.

Jim McGrath knows more about racehorses and their pedigree than the rest of the team put together. His many years of presenting live TV prior to Channel 4 racing means he is a confident and competent front man, though my ears prick up more when he is being asked the questions, rather than when he is asking them.

Proof positive that as viewers we all see things differently came when I read the grumblings of one keen racing viewer on Twitter.

Tania Kindersley noticed something I at first didn’t.

She spotted a missing ingredient that is important to those who like to watch racing. Not just punters but those who, for whatever reason, cannot get to live racing but want to see shots of horses in the parade ring.

Where was the paddock preview of the horses? The first time we saw them was down at the start.

Via her own blog www.taniakindersley.blogspot.com she says:- “There is barely a glimpse of the horses in the paddock. There are hardly any replays of the races. The old, intricate ‘Story of the Race’ appears to have gone. In fact, outside the live races themselves, there is oddly little about the horses on the course.”

Tania is right.

We should see the horses in the paddock. Even if, as was the case in the old days, that footage is pre-recorded earlier.

The other Tanya (Stevenson) is best when bouncing off someone else – though not for one moment would I advocate the return of ‘Big Mac’.

Though never the most confident of presenters to camera, Tanya does know her betting and I would find time to employ that knowledge in a way that is more informative to watching punters.

Alice Plunkett is the best of those charged with interviewing tired jockeys as they make their way to the winners’ enclosure. I hope the new mother returns to doing just that very soon.

Nick Luck will double up for presenting the big meetings with Clare Balding. Time will tell how that pairing works but, look on the bright side, Willie Carson did not make the move from the BBC to C4.

My concern is that, at this early stage, the Channel 4 team feels less like a team and more like a collection of individuals. More Real Madrid than Barcelona. I want Channel 4 racing to be the team Ditcheat of sports broadcasting.

 

The job of the producers is make sure the on screen talent knits together and that, to using footballing parlance, they are ‘played to their strengths.’

I suspect that there will be casualties who fall by the wayside before the flat season returns (when we can once again see Emma Spencer in high heels telling a winning jockey that the horse under him is “so strong”).

I know only too well that television and ego are natural bedfellows.

The new look Channel 4 racing team includes ex jockey Mick Fitzgerald

Mick Fitzgerald joins C4 racing

By the time we get to the Cheltenham festival in March, and Ms Balding is in charge of on air presentation, the boys will know their place. There will be more second and third fiddles than you find in the average orchestra.

Some egos will be bruised as supporting cast members feel they are being marginalised.

None of which will be a direct result of anything the saintly Clare says or does.

You see, in television, when an ego is kicked out of bed, sensitivity and a chip on the shoulder are climbing under the duvet.

Putting together a presentation team is no easy task. I know.

Keeping them together, uniting them as a team and driving them on to deliver a better programme than the one that went before is both a big challenge and a thankless task.

As a producer it is much easier to be in charge of a new programme, rather than a reinvented one.

Like the sport of racing itself, the head of sport at Channel 4 and the production company he awarded the contract to, must not be so focussed on attracting the ‘younger customer’ that they drive away the core viewer of racing on terrestrial television.

Now that the BBC has turned its back on the sport, those of us who choose not to watch racing via subscription channels need this new look Channel 4 coverage to succeed.

 

Its future will not depend on whether or not we can read the blue graphics. Nor on if the presenters wear ties or wet t-shirts.

Advertising revenue will dictate if the deal to televise racing on Channel 4 is extended beyond the current contract.

The advertising department at C4 will be busy chasing companies to sell their wares in the commercial breaks between the races.

But for that to happen the channel needs to keep the most important ‘customer’ satisfied. The punters, and those who love to watch racing, and not just the races.

Personally I gave up predicting the future of TV programmes after I, as a member of the production team on the ‘pilot’ of ‘Countdown’ told anyone who would listen “this programme will never run.”

A remark made over thirty years ago. And one those who worked on the show for many decades after never failed to remind me of.

I am just glad that, back in 1982, you couldn’t bet on such an outcome.

Finally, and appropriately coming at the end of this review, I would like to ask production company IMG to reconsider their end titles. In all weathers the crew that make it possible for Channel 4 racing to be as good as it is do so by going that extra mile. When the heavens open at the races us punters can take shelter or go to the bar. The camera crew cannot. They, and all the production team, deserve an on screen credit.

I’m ready to give credit where it’s due IMG. Are you?

*This article first appeared on the excellent http://sport-onthebox.com/and was written before the lawsuit issued by former C4 racing employee John McCririck

26 Comments

  1. Frank Bateman 4 years ago

    The Morning Line is C4’s equivalent of the BBC’s The One Show.
    Both are risible.

  2. terrry foster 6 years ago

    Change for the sake of change, is always a bad thing… Taking away lively and interesting characters like Mccirick and Francome, and replacing with ”boring people” like Cunningham, and Fitzgerald is never going to be popular, Nick luck looks like the ”Devils son” with those black eyes that stare….He too is lacking in personality… ”Ishi” what ever his name is, is dull and uninteresting and wish one of the horses he rushes up to , to speak to the winning jockey would stand on his foot, it would be better watching….!!!! Jim can’t keep his ”eyes open” mcgrath is another Cunningham, boring and dull…. Claire balding just loves the sound of her own voice, is also a bit of a ”crawler”. so at the end of the day, you were probably better off with Mccirick and Francome, at least they were honest, and direct, and entertaining, and made it worthwhile tuning in……..
    But you lot never listen….. you are your own worst enemy…..!!!!!!

  3. Chris Brunt 6 years ago

    Having read through all the comments, I have to say that I am in total agreement that the “old guard” of Tommo, Francome & Co must be brought back if The Morning Line is to return to its “golden era” if you like.
    The new look of the programme is too formal for me. There are no personalities at all. I think keeping Jim McGrath on the programme was a good move as he knows more about horses than the others on the show put together. Having spoken to friends and family, they all agree that the current crop are turning viewers away from The Morning Line. Yes make it informative, Yes discuss the big race of the day in detail, but bring back some humour and the only way to do that is to listen to what people are saying and bring back some of the old gang. Alistair Down is another name who springs to mind. He knew his stuff but at the same time could be very dry and witty! I watch The Morning Line now on a casual basis. There can be weeks at a time when I dont’ watch it, and I have to say I don’t miss it as I would tune in every week before the new team arrived. Channel 4 must take heed of what people are saying otherwise more and more people will continue to switch off. The afternoon coverage continues to be good with a variety of courses on offer, but sadly it still lacks the personalities it once possessed.

  4. john woodward 7 years ago

    Simple bring back tommo and the team including big mac the new show is akin to watching paint dry

  5. George Morrice 7 years ago

    Thought the aim of channel 4 racing was to review the forthcoming race-provide viewers with the form of the runners including previous video footage. Only in the last few minutes do the presenters make an effort to discuss some of the runners. Sadly, when the runners listing is on the screen they only mention a few of the runners.
    They should consider employing racing fanatics-ATR presenters-e.g. Chapman in particular. What you are delivering is extremely poor-you seem to spend the majority of the time post review of the race or rubbish like someone making cocktails (31/07/2013) etc.
    Ref the Morning line has anyone gauged how much time is alloted to reviewing the racing of the day? I suspect 30% max.
    George M

    • Author
      Vern 7 years ago

      George, thanks for leaving a comment.
      As I said in my 6 part series of reviews of C4 Racing, the cocktails and fashion elements are not for me. But then they are not aimed at me, you or those interested in the racing. They are aimed at attracting other viewers. Whether such features do attract new viewers is debatable.
      More time on the Morning Line should be spent previewing the day’s racing and, as I wrote, the silly competition should go and the big race preview should be on earlier.
      At the racing itself, many viewers are complaining that they do not see enough of the horses in the paddock and are no longer seeing all the horses. I feel sure TV bosses will say that is down to time limitations, but they did show every horse in the paddock in the old days.
      What I have discovered through the feedback to my articles is this. Some people, including you and me, want more racing discussion and previews. Some other people want less statistics and betting information and, they say, more entertainment.
      One of the problems with producing television programmes is that you cannot please all the people most of the time.
      But they should guard against losing their core, loyal, long term viewers.
      Vernon

    • Jim McDermott 7 years ago

      I am so disappointed with the new morning line regime talking a load of garbage, with the sight of hands pressing fancy buttons showing previous horse positions.
      Clair Balding is supposed to be the anchor lady, you only see her at festive meetings Ascot York etc.
      The rest of the team seem so nervous and lack knowledge and cannot tip there hat.
      Unfortunately you have lost some good and knowledgeable people.
      John Francome / Derek Thompson / Mike Cattermole / Alistair Down / John McCririck ? Nick Luck /
      Jim McGrath / Leslie graham / Alice Plunket / Emma Spencer.
      I see you have some of the old school with you. I will not say who I cannot stand but I’m sure the viewers know who I mean.
      I will give the Morning line a miss, after all these years, and make my own racing judgment from other means.

      • Anonymous 7 years ago

        Bring back the old team
        Nick Luck has not got any personality what so ever Boring to listen to !

  6. john smith 8 years ago

    I have just watched How to win the Grand National on 4 and would say that this programe did more to explain the horse, why they race, why humans get involved, and the empathy between them than any amount of over -enthusiastic, irritating Clare Balding wetting herself in the paddock, stalking and pointing at, then collaring cringing connections, and being generally patronising to the audience! At least Thomo was just irritating! Thank common sense that Alistaire and Alice get a look in. It’s become BBC on 4! If it aint broke don’t fix it!

  7. Neil Harris 8 years ago

    I’ve been a big critic of the new Channel 4 racing, but I have to applaud them on the effort they are putting into the Grand National and the meeting itself, seems like they are really proud to have it and are promoting it to a young audience (the extreme sport motto) to try and get them interested and keep them for the future.
    3 Morning LInes should help improve the format, I felt it was a lot better during the festival than it is on Saturday’s. Saturday’s tend to be more of a magazing programme, rather than one that concentrates on the days events.

    I put this out on Twitter the other day and got an interesting response, what do you think will be deemed a success ratings wise for the national?

    Last year the BBC got 11m for the race itself.
    The BBC even managed 7m for the boat race this week. Do people just watch BBC1 for anything?

  8. david wheeler 8 years ago

    Easter monday and no racing on channel four,the lack of midweek racing creates a disconnect as far as the whole picture of racing is concerned.The splitting up of tv coverage along with the bbc getting rid of their coverage will lead to long lasting damage to the whole of the racing industry.As for the morning line ,its a joke and so boring.They have made a massive mistake getting rid of the publics favourite presenters only to replace them with people we already see too much of,bores and people who are not competent.R.I.P RACING.

  9. DAVE THOMSON 8 years ago

    Just watched the 4.00 at Cheltenham !!! The ” TEAM ” ? NO comments about ” a piece of ribbon ??? ( at the richest meet that people spend millions on ) ITS A JOKE ! & the winner saying he would have won anyway !! yeah & pigs can fly !! I feel sorry for Miss J Mangan & no I never backed any !!!!!

    • Author
      Vern 8 years ago

      I agree with you Dave re winning jockey. I don’t think he would have won. Even the horse without a jockey beat him home! Something spooked Jane’s horse. No idea what. Possibly the flapping silly rope or maybe a human. You never know with horses. Can only imagine how gutted the jockey is this morning. V

  10. d hammond 8 years ago

    poor staff,bring back old presenters.new ones poor poor.not getting better,getting worse.producer sack him or her,poor poor

    • Author
      Vern 8 years ago

      I know only too well that it takes time for new production teams to settle in. There are things that are wrong and I will be writing about them. But, having worked in TV for 25 years, I know that TV people never admit they are wrong. I did it once and my boss ticked me off for it. I will post my thoughts on C4 coverage here and elsewhere.

  11. john noja 8 years ago

    graham cunningham is in my opion not the correct person for the show, francombe is way above this person . graham unfortunately irritates by speaking with his hands and personality of a fart in a gas mask. i appreciate we need to revamp and update but this character is completely out of character

    • Author
      Vern 8 years ago

      I agree re Graham. I agreed with his appointment initially but his style has worn very thin for me. He thinks he is funny, he is not. Mick Fitzgerald should be the regular sidekick with the very knowledgeable Jim McGrath. Were they side by side most weeks, they would build up a relationship to match the one Jim had with Francs who, let us not forget, made the decision to leave himself. He was asked to stay on by the new production company but, rightly in my opinion, walked away. Leave them wanting more approach.
      Morning Line does require a revamp but you will not get one. I learned much in my 25 years as a TV producer and one thing was that TV bosses never admit they were wrong! Watch out for a forthcoming post from me about C4 Racing. Thanks for feedback. VG

  12. Neil Harris 8 years ago

    Is it true Alaistair Down is back for the festival? http://forums.digitalspy.co.uk/showthread.php?t=1639257&page=19

    • admin 8 years ago

      Yes, thankfully it’s true. This is from a C4 Press Release ‘Alastair Down returns to the fold to deliver daily essay-style preview packages.’ Read more here: http://bit.ly/YA2rF1

  13. jane elliot 8 years ago

    the new channel 4 racing is very disappointing, bring back highflyer productions

  14. Chris Salmon 8 years ago

    Thanks, level headed discussion, consider yourself privileged, I will follow you on twitter.

  15. Chris Salmon 8 years ago

    Vernon, I agree with almost everything you’ve said and I am certainly no apologist for McCririck, but my issue is with all the so called pundits/experts constantly slagging him off now he’s gone. Not one of them spoke out when he was on Ch4. May I tell you a little story about one of the new “respected” pundits on Ch4. Last year when the new whip rules were introduced amid massive controversy, Jockey Jim Crowley was interviewed at (I think) Lingfield, Crowley, understandably, said “It will probably mean horses not ridden out to get the best possible place” Graham Cunninghams comment on Twitter was ” a load of bollocks”, when asked if he thought Crowleys comments were fair he replied “self serving cobblers”. These were his exact words. I was involved in many discussions on this point, and still am, because, as a place only punter, you will understand.

    • Author
      Vern 8 years ago

      Indeed I do recall that incident Chris. GC would not get away with such comments on C4. If he does, he’ll be history. As for JM, I did seen several punters call for his head long before it was chopped off. Apart from anything else, he wasted precious on air time, especially when he was on ‘The Morning Line.’ As for him telling Jeremy Vine that he got Tanya the job, he is wrong. Tanya was the production secretary for Andrew Franklin who produced the coverage for many years through his company Highflyer Productions. Andrew spotted what Tanya could offer, not the man who thereafter called her “Female.” JM owes Tanya a huge debt for protecting him from himself on air for many years, and especially in the last couple of years. I have worked with the man and he is both conceited and utterly obnoxious.
      For those who miss him… well they still have those incredibly annoying ads!.
      Be lucky. Thank you very much for the feedback. It is always appreciated.
      Vernon

  16. Chris Salmon 8 years ago

    Isn’t it enough to know the man was sacked, I see you’ve jumped on the bandwagon of kicking McCririck when he’s down

    • Author
      Vern 8 years ago

      Chris. John had the same job for 29 years. He was protected in the latter years by the head of the company that then produced the coverage. When C4 wanted rid of him because of his inability to pronounce the names of horses, and because he told women/girls at racecourses that “I am King of minge”! In the light of all things Saville, they got very worried about him.
      At his best John added value to racing coverage. But, in my opinion, that was some years ago. I think he was fortunate to still be on air the past 2-3 years.
      I defended him for years but his behaviour and comments have become impossible to defend. Did you hear him on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 this week? When he dismissed his co-interviewee as “a bit of skirt.”
      Two weeks ago he was begging for his job back. Now he employs a lawyer on a no win no fee basis to try and sue C4 for millions. Or, could it be, purely in order to keep his name in the headlines.
      Ten years ago John told me what a nightmare it was for him in his days as an editorial assistant on ‘Grandstand’ to work with David Coleman. That Coleman was arrogant, obnoxious sand full of his own self importance.
      I think those sentiments now apply to John and he should accept that, unlike many, he had a very well paid job for a very long time.
      All broadcasting careers come to an end. The trouble is, the longer you have been on TV the harder they find it to accept it is all over. I have seen it happen many times.

      I certainly don’t think punters are missing him.
      Good luck.
      Vernon

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