The new ITV Racing production team are at this very minute preparing to go on air with action from Cheltenham and Musselburgh. The very future of racing on terrestrial television rests on how well they cover the sport for the next four years. No pressure lads and lassies. Good luck to them all.
My one time Sky Sports colleague Ed Chamberlin will be like a child in a sweet shop that has all his favourite goodies displayed in front of him. Racing presentation is in a safe pair of hands with Ed – as it was with Nick Luck on Channel 4.
I’ve known since the 90’s that Ed’s first sporting love was racing. He always did like a bet! He’s on first name terms with many high profile figures in the sport and, crucially, is trusted by them. As a producer or director I would feel very comfortable knowing that I was speaking into the ear of a professional presenter such as Ed. If ITV Racing flops, which I very much doubt, it will not be down to Ed. He’s given up a lucrative and relatively secure role at Sky Sports because he could not resist the opportunity to present his favourite sport on free-to-air television.
ITV Racing will attract more viewers for the meetings that are shown on ITV1. When it comes to daytime television, ITV will almost always attract more viewers than Channel 4.
I worked for ITV for 12 years, much of the time on sports output, including racing from York. Later, I also had the privilege of working on a freelance basis for Channel 4 – a broadcaster I have long admired. In 1982 I worked on the pilot for the very first programme on Channel 4, ‘Countdown.’ I produced the cult late night sports show called ‘Under the Moon’ and I produced ‘Dispatches’ documentaries for the channel. I mention this by way of making clear that I have some knowledge of the two broadcasters and the audiences that watch their output.
Racing is now a minority sport. We who love watching the sport may not wish to admit it, but the fact remains fewer people tune in than was the case when I grew up watching racing in black and white on BBC ‘Grandstand’ in the 1960’s. Of course, as we all know, there are a million more channels now. There are zillions of others things people can watch, not just on TV but also online.
My generation of racegoer, and the generation above me, are a dying breed. An unpalatable state of affairs, but an unavoidable fact. Are we being replaced by a new generation that wants to watch racing for the racing itself? I don’t believe so.
And thereby is the problem for ITV Sport. You can hire new faces, retain old ones, hire way too many people to be involved in the presentation (as is the case below), but if not enough people want to watch a sport, it matters not a jot whose face is in front of camera, or on what channel you transmit. You are broadcasting to an ever dwindling audience.
Rishi Persad knows a thing or two about reporting sport on TV. He’s worked for the BBC, Channel 4 and now makes the switch to ITV Racing. Watch what he has to say here at eight minutes into the interview I conducted with him and Nick Luck just three weeks before it was announced that Channel 4 had lost the racing contract. Viewers are so keen to shoot the messenger they ignore the possibility that, as Rishi says: “Maybe it’s the sport that has the problem.”
Ultimately that’s not the fault of the BBC, Channel 4 or ITV. Racing itself is to blame. Or rather those who run the sport. For it is they who have debased the sport. The authorities and those who operate their strings – the big offshore bookies. For they are now the puppet masters.
Ed Chamberlin can do his bit today, and he’ll do it well for the next four years. ITV can hire the marmite figure that is Matt Chapman. They can employ the expertise of Frankie Dettori in the flat season and AP McCoy at this time of the year (albeit I understand the reluctant former Champion jockey took lots of persuasion). It seems he doesn’t enjoy being on TV. Perhaps his good friend Ed Chamberlin can bring out the wit that McCoy so readily displays in relaxed, off camera conversation. ITV Racing can give airtime to Hayley Turner and, for reasons that escape me, Victoria Pendleton. It will not matter should the product itself prove unattractive to a new audience.
The ITV Saturday morning preview show needs to be very good. Lively, informative and lead from the front with analysis of the big races each week. It is the hors d’oeuvre and needs to be so tasty that I want to hang around for the main course.
I despaired when I read that the show, the equivalent of the Morning Line on Channel 4, would be shown on ITV4. ‘The Opening Show’ (how many Siobhan Sharpe’s did it take to come up with that title?) will go to air later than was the case for the Morning Line. From a production costs point of view, I can see why ITV opted for a later start. In winter, however, that will mean those who like to travel to watch racing in the flesh will not be watching ‘The Opening Show.’
A bit like Siobhan and friends from the spot on BBC comedy show W1A, did they sit for hours in meeting rooms coming up with that title? Is not part of the mission meant to be attracting those who don’t already watch the sport? People who are not familiar with the terminology used in racing circles. You and I know that the opening show refers to the time when a race is first priced up by bookmakers, but what will regular viewers of ITV4 make of that title? When they look through their TV guide for Kojak repeats, will they immediately understand what ‘The Opening Show’ is about? I doubt it.
Racing needs to attract a new generation of followers. Any broadcaster showing the sport needs to do the same. Racing thinks pop acts performing after the racing has finished is the best way to do so. That and providing alcohol for the masses, the majority of whom don’t even watch a race at the track.
ITV Sport will try to attract a more low brow audience than Channel 4 Racing. They will target a typical ITV crowd.
They will use cross promotion to attract to the sport the crowd that watches nonentities and once famous for five minutes ‘celebrities’ who appear on popular shows such as ‘I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here.’ Those who loathed Channel 4 shoehorning the likes of Alan’Chatty Man’ Carr into the racing coverage had better prepare themselves for lots more of that sort of thing.
Ant and Dec are sure to turn up at the races and be interviewed by Chamberlin or, heaven forbid, Matt Chapman. Anytime there is a star (and I use that word reluctantly) whose own ITV show requires a promotional push, expect to see that person interviewed at the racetrack.
The ITV Sport production team will be serious in how they go about their work. But ITV the broadcaster is sure to treat the sport less seriously than was the case in the last four years of Channel 4 Racing. ITV will seek to take the coverage of racing downmarket. Make it more populist. Use whichever term you prefer. Isn’t that what you wanted?
The Twitterati that slammed the IMG produced version of Channel 4 Racing for not being, as Nick Luck said to me in that interview posted above, “a cross between the Fast Show and Morecambe and Wise” – they want more fun. They want laughs. You only have to look at which programmes on ITV get most viewers to know what the aim of Niall Sloane (Director of Sport) and Mark Demuth (Controller of ITV Sport, Production) will be.
ITV Racing has to attract lots more viewers to the sport. Too few bums on seats in front of the telly and ad revenue will suffer. And it will be ad revenue that determines if the new ITV contract is extended come 2021.
ITV Racing has had a full year to prepare for this day. They have been recording ‘dummy runs’ for many weeks. They must hit the ground running. For all I maintain that you should judge any new TV show after 12 months and not 12 minutes, there can be no excuse should ITV Racing not get the thumbs up from the majority from day one.
They will also benefit greatly from the sponsorship of TV coverage by William Hill. Until and unless the Prime Minister carries out her threat to ban all bookmaker and gambling advertising on daytime television, the bookie will continue to sponsor ITV Racing and the sum they are paying to do so provides ITV with a financial safety net.
I also suspect that the racing press will support ITV Racing in a fashion that was not the case these past four years. The editor of the Racing Post recently wrote a fair and often praiseworthy analysis of the past four years of Channel 4 Racing. A pity, therefore, that his publication seemed intent on grasping any opportunity to diss the IMG coverage. Perhaps he was simply following the example set by the racing writers at The Guardian newspaper. At several points in recent years it seemed like they turned to write critical articles about Channel 4 Racing purely because the sport itself offered them nothing else to write about. I will watch with interest what those publications have to say about ITV Racing.
ITV Racing will do well to surpass the superb direction of racing captured by the Channel 4 Racing camera crew, led by director Denise Large. One bit of good news is that they are hiring the very best and most experienced racing cameraman, my friend and former colleague Adrian Camm. It’s troubling that I understand the powers that be at ITV Sport took some persuading to hire Adrian.
It also nags at me that my fellow Sheffield Wednesday supporter, the aforementioned Niall Sloane, was quick to tell those he interviewed that he knew “about 4% of what you know about racing.” And it annoys the hell out of me that those who ITV Racing bosses asked to travel to London for an interview, but chose not to hire, are still waiting for the courtesy of a communication telling them that their services are not required.
ITV1 will transmit the very best meetings. The remainder will be buried on a channel I only switch on when I am feeling poorly and need a sofa day. A day when I am comforted by stepping back in time and reliving ‘The Sweeney’ or ‘Minder’. Putting so much racing on ITV4 tells me that the broadcaster only really wants the best bits. They had to take the rest as part of a lucrative financial package the racing authorities could not resist.
ITV Sport gave the British Horseracing Authority a 48 hour ultimatum. A take it or leave it offer the BHA felt it could not resist. Probably the last time a terrestrial broadcaster will offer such a large sum to cover racing.
I worry that no matter how good a job ITV Sport does from today – and they will do a good job – we are at the beginning of the end for racing on free-to-air television. I hope I am wrong. I refuse to pay to watch any sport on television that I grew up watching for free. Not because I am mean. But as a matter of principal.
By the time 2021 dawns my days of watching live racing on television may well be a thing of the past.