The production team will rise early and prepare meticulously. They will undertake tasks you the viewer will not know about and would never see. I know. I have been there and done it. Over 23 years I produced all manner of live OB’s. Sport, entertainment, factual and big music events. I know only too well what is involved and I know that crews almost always go the extra mile for the producer and director. They care about their work. They are a professional set of people.
The boys and girls who ensure Channel 4 racing gets on air are very good at their jobs. In another life I worked with some of them, and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. I never doubted that cameramen such as Adrian Camm and Kevin Mullen would deliver what I or the director wanted. To be able to rely on an experienced crew is, as Denise Large (Director) and Carl Hicks (Producer) know, a bonus. It means you don’t have to worry about them, or hold their hands. You can concentrate on your preparation of the output in the knowledge that they will do all they can to capture the best shots.
I have said all I am going to say about the individual members of the presentation team. And when it comes to the merits of the output via production company IMG; again I have little more to add. I thought the Channel 4 team had a very good Royal Ascot and their coverage of racing last Saturday, including the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, was top drawer.They even got me back watching the ‘Morning Line’ show on Saturday morning. When I last addressed this topic, I confirmed that I now decide whether to watch that show based on the line up of guests/experts.
The ‘Morning Line’ going to air was once my regular Saturday alarm clock. In recent months I hit the snooze button (sometimes while watching the show). I became a fickle viewer.
The edition of the ‘Morning Line’ last Saturday, broadcast live from Ascot, was excellent. I loved the show and believe that to be the path the programme should follow more often.
What was different? Well it had more race analysis conversation. It included more references to the betting market for the big races of the day. It had presenter Nick Luck in tip top form and, crucially I thought, the al fresco setting was a big plus. Taken out of their portakabin studio, and with Ascot racecourse as a pretty backdrop, the line up of Frankie Dettori, Paul Kealy of the Racing Post and Jim McGrath appeared more relaxed, less stiff. And the special guest, Harry Herbert from Highclere Racing, also looked at ease, was informative and a good value guest.
They also had more time to talk about the big races of the day. The programme felt less rushed, freed from having to include well meant pre-recorded packages on subject matter that had nothing to do with the racing on offer that day. I would save those VT ‘fillers’ for days when the racing is not the best, and the experts are less excited about the racing on offer.
When you have top quality racing to talk about, let’s have more in depth analysis. Let’s give it more time – as Channel 4 Racing did last Saturday.
There has been too much talk about viewing figures. I had my say about them the last time I addressed the Channel 4 coverage. It didn’t make me popular with some of my bosses when I worked in TV, but I say again, viewing figures are total bollocks! There, I’ve said it.I read recently a piece by John Scanlon. He edits the excellent magazine produced by trainer Mark Johnston, the ‘Kingsley Klarion.’
John expressed his concern at the viewing figures recorded for the Channel 4 coverage of the Derby meeting at Epsom. He mentioned the comments of the disgruntled and deposed C4 presenter, John McCririck. ‘Big Mac’ had called the lowest ever terrestrial TV viewing figure for the big race, “calamitous.”
Scanlon said of the disappointing viewing figures: “Such apathy will kill the sport we love.”
He went on: “Unlike McCririck, I don’t seek to heap the blame on Channel 4 or the production company behind their coverage. The simple truth is that these figures are tangible proof of what many of us have been saying for some time. Racing needs a presence on terrestrial TV, and the sport needs to maximise concerted efforts to raise its own profile in the press and broadcast media. After all, what is the point of trying to sell pictures abroad if, in the process, we kill interest in the sport at home.”
I agree with John Scanlon up to that point. But not with one part of his summary below.
He concludes: “The problem is not with the coverage provided by C4; rather, it is that the coverage is brought to air on C4, and not the BBC. Joe Public has to go searching for the racing on C4, whereas the BBC coverage came packaged with consummate skill and all the promotion that a flagship channel’s programming needed. Racing’s great and good must react to these stark figures now.”
Come off it John! What “searching” does the viewer have to do? Channel 4 is there and easy to find. It’s just down from BBC1 on your remote control. It is not hard to find. Of course, he is referring to the fact that some casual racing viewers grew accustomed to the sport being on the BBC (though not always BBC 1, John. Remember the dreaded red button?).
I guess Scanlon is talking about people like my neighbour in the 1990’s. Vin was knocking on in years and she liked to watch the racing for the dresses, hats and “the fit jockeys.” So, a bit like when she wanted to watch the snooker “for the bums bent over the table”, she knew it would be on BBC 1 or 2.
You can’t accuse C4 of not promoting their coverage of racing. While I personally disliked some of their earlier promos, you cannot say they haven’t thrown money at filming eye-catching trailers. In the first year they chucked loads of money in that direction. More recently they seem to have cut back on such extravagance and edited what I would call more normal promotions, like the one they have used to tell people they are covering Glorious Goodwood this week.
The BBC cared about racing for decades. It was the channel to go to if you wanted to watch racing. Then there was a sea change in attitude. One Director General in particular thought the BBC covering the likes of Royal Ascot was elitist and far too expensive an undertaking when compared to the number of viewers the coverage attracted. In truth, the BBC had to make swinging cuts across the board, and racing was just one victim.
The BBC opted to spend millions covering the London Olympics. A one off event. They covered it well. So they should have. They threw shedloads of money and staff at the project. Some of the production team used to work on the racing.
Cuts had to be made elsewhere, money shifted from one production to another. What John Scanlon forgets is that the BBC wound down their coverage of racing long before they ditched it all together. Little by little they reduced the number of fixtures they covered.
The BBC fell out of love with racing and, after many years of marriage, broke off the relationship. The sport didn’t even receive a text saying: You’re dumped!That Channel 4 became the only place you could watch racing on terrestrial TV was always a concern. Even some of those working on the output wondered if no competition would be healthy for C4 Racing going forward. Sometimes having competition can raise your own standards. You seek to produce better output than the opposition.
In truth we should stop shooting the current messenger. We all have our gripes about certain aspects of the Channel 4 coverage compared to as it was prior to January 2013. We each have our favourite presenters and the ones we love to loathe.
But, even if you believe the viewing figures, the problem of fewer people watching racing on free to air TV is not the fault of the team at C4 Racing. It’s too easy to point the finger at them. I believe interest in watching the sport on C4 would have still declined had IMG not replaced Highflyer as the production team. And it would not have been the fault of either company.
The reason people are not as attracted to watching racing as they once were is simple to understand. It is this. There is too much crap racing being staged up and down the country each and every week.
If you put Aston Villa versus Stoke City on TV every week, who is going to watch? If you give your viewers a diet of Sheffield United or Leeds, they will switch off in their droves.
The truth many don’t want to face is that there are far more low grade, small field, donkey derby like races on offer throughout the year. Attractive, must watch race meetings such as Glorious Goodwood or Royal Ascot are jewels in a heap of dung.
The BHA announced that the number of flat fixtures in 2015 will be more or less the same as in 2014. They think this is something to celebrate. It is not. Dross is dross. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
And it doesn’t matter which channel transmits racing on terrestrial TV. People will only tune in if the product on offer is worth watching. Stage shows close when not enough bums are placed on seats. Films bomb at the box office if word of mouth says the movie is crap.
My fear is that racing will soon cease to be on free to air TV. That this current contract to broadcast racing on C4 will be the last. But if that day comes I will not be blaming that channel, IMG or the production team who will this week work their nuts off to deliver us quality pictures of horse racing.
I will blame those who run the sport. The BHA and the big bookmakers who don’t really care too much if people watch racing live, or on TV. Just so long as they are betting online, or going into their shops to play the dreaded FOBT’s machines that make more money for the bookies than you and I betting on a race could ever do.
As a result, on course betting is dying. I was struck by the photo of independent bookie Geoff Banks having a siesta during racing at Ascot. A liquid breakfast or long lunch may have contributed to his lethargy, but I never thought the betting ring would be quiet enough for a bookie to take forty winks.
Those who are in charge of the sport do not want to hear that less can be more. That quality, not quantity, should be the target for racing. They will instead kill the goose that laid what was once a golden egg. Racing is in danger of becoming a minority sport.
Having 1960’s band the Beach Boys perform at racecourses post racing is all very well and good, especially for my generation. But it does not turn fans of their music into lifelong fans of racing or make punters of them.
Where does racing go from here? God Only Knows!
– Vernon Grant
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