Lee Mottershead, award winning reporter from the Racing Post, asked me to add my opinion to a two page feature he was compiling investigating the fall in viewing figures for racing shown on Channel 4. I was happy to oblige. That feature is published below.
The piece makes for an interesting read. I see my voice is far from alone in blaming the sport for a reduction in interest. It’s not enough for some to say racecourse attendances have never been bigger. Racegoers may be turning up in ever bigger numbers for the feature meetings, and that’s good news. That’s how it should be.
But they are not going racing for the multitude of low grade, small field races that are so prevalent these days. The racing calendar is too full. Outside of festival or big meeting times, weekdays are made up of poor quality racing often attended by one man and his dog. Too often now the best meetings are scheduled to take place on a Saturday. The same Saturday!
Racing is like a box of chocolates. Everyone wants those Quality Street chocolates wrapped in purple paper. Who doesn’t go for the strawberry or orange cream in a box of Milk Tray? But nobody wants to know about those chocolates left at the bottom of the tin. The chocolate equivalent of all weather racing at Wolverhampton.
For approaching three years now, both on these pages and via http://sport-onthebox.com I have been writing about the new look Channel 4 Racing. The Saturday morning programme called the ‘Morning Line’ and the coverage of the days racing.
In the light of my comments published in the Racing Post on Friday, some people online think I have always praised the new look productions delivered by independent production company IMG. Look back and you will see that was not the case in the early days. But you’ll also see that I said no new or revamped programme should be judged until it has been on the air for two years. That time has passed.
I hope this is the last time that I have to write the following. I too miss John Francome. But John, out of loyalty to a friend who used to produce Channel 4 Racing, said he did not want to be part of the presentation team once IMG took over producing the output. I very much doubt IMG would have dropped him. By his own admission, Francome wanted out. So we cannot blame IMG or Executive Producer Carl Hicks for that.
I too miss the rugged face, knowledge and wonderful words of Alastair Down. I even get excited when I see him in the back of shot at the races. I delight in his pre-recorded voice over VT packages that Channel 4 rightly have him record prior to big race days, or in honour of certain horses. Nobody does that better.
As to why IMG chose not to have Alastair as part of the presentation team when they took over the reins, that’s for them to reveal. Not me. They have rightly chosen to say nothing on the matter. I do understand their reasoning and, if I’d been the Executive Producer, I would likely have made the same decision as Carl Hicks. Albeit with a heavy heart.
I’ve watched television ever since I was able to recite the names of the characters in ‘The Woodentops’ or imitate little weed from ‘Bill and Ben.’ Fast forward to 1980 and that’s when I began working in television, firstly as a sports researcher and, thereafter, as a producer for YTV, BBC, C4 and SKY. So I probably watch television a little differently from someone who hasn’t produced it.
There are programmes I look back on fondly, sometimes while wearing rose tinted spectacles. It’s usually a mistake to go back and watch old programmes because they never look as good as you remember them.
There were days when the banter between certain members of the former Channel 4 Racing presentation team was laugh a minute stuff. But there were many more Saturdays when the ‘Morning Line’ was instantly forgettable and the racing on offer on a Saturday afternoon desperately bad. It’s just that you’ve forgotten about those days.
It’s like me with my sitcom idol Tony Hancock. The writing of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson was always clever. But ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ wasn’t great every week. Even they acknowledge that fact. For every classic like ‘The Radio Ham’ or ‘The Blood Donor’ there were editions of the legendary half hour comedy that raised far fewer laughs, then and now.
I miss John Francome and Alastair Down just as much as those of tweeting how much you mourn their absence. But, as in life, nothing stays the same on television.
If I had my way Saturday TV would still consist of ‘Grandstand’ including a football preview by Sam Leitch, and racing coverage. Pop group The Monkees would be on at teatime with their daft show and actor Jack Warner would make you feel safe when, as PC George Dixon, he uttered the words “Good Evening All’ on ‘Dixon of Dock Green.’
As the article by Lee Mottershead confirms, the contract to cover racing on terrestrial television will soon be up for renewal. ITV are interested in taking over from Channel 4. ITV are interested not because they have a love of racing. They only have eyes for the potential advertising revenue.
The BBC turned their back on racing and are now busy doing the same on other sports. They are having to make drastic cuts in expenditure to appease a government that knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
The next target for George Osborne, David Cameron and the ghastly John Whittingdale is Channel 4. The broadcaster makes money. Individual programmes make a loss, but overall Channel 4 makes profit. The government plans to sell off Channel 4.
In private hands I would expect to see those loss making programmes dropped. I fear a media mogul would decide that Saturday afternoons could be filled by an old movie or a repeated game show. Any new owner of Channel 4 would immediately save lots of money by dropping live coverage of racing.
For those of you busy bemoaning the Channel 4 Racing coverage (conveniently ignoring the fact that the actual race coverage is superior to what it was), I would say this.
If, like me, you still value being able to watch top class sport for free, you should be supporting those who produce racing on Channel 4. They care about the sport itself. I’d argue they can more for its future than the British Horseracing Authority.
It’s a case of being careful what you wish for. When the day comes that there is no racing on free-to-air terrestrial television, you’ll miss it. And the sport itself will be poorer for that.
Click on the images of the Racing Post article to read or download.