Monday 1 February 2016

Will the Change in Media Contract From Channel 4 to ITV Bring the Lost Viewers Back to British Racing?

Farewell to Channel 4, after 31 years of broadcasting racing, and welcome back, ITV – starting with Cheltenham on New Year’s Day 2017. The Racecourse Media Group, acting on behalf of British Racing, announced at the beginning of the year that ITV had been granted the exclusive rights to broadcast racing, having won the bidding battle and being prepared to pay £30m over four years for the privilege. Apparently the intention is to split the broadcasts, with approximately 30 days’ racing from the showcase meetings such as Cheltenham, Ascot and Goodwood on the main ITV station, and another 60 days or so on ITV4. If you were cynical you would say that ITV offered the most money and the racecourses accepted the highest offer. If you were more positive you would be hoping that lost viewers would be attracted back to the sport, and new ones be brought in. With the BHA’s growth strategy to 2020 now being implemented, this is yet another element which, if it works, will be of real benefit to the sport …. but equally if it fails, it could be a big step back for racing.

It is funny how just thinking about ITV took me straight back to my student days when I first watched racing on that channel, under the enthusiastic if somewhat hesitant John Rickman, Raleigh Gilbert and Lord Oaksey. Indeed I used to frequent a local Chester pub, The Little Oak, and can still remember the smoke-filled tap room, agonising over selections for the ITV 7, then handing over a few pounds from my student grant (remember those?) before settling back with cheese and onion baps and a few pints of Greenall Whitley strong bitter, while the poorly-selected nags were duly beaten. It got me hooked on the idiocies of betting on accumulators and a fondness for beer glasses with handles.

In those days the transmission of racing was incredibly rudimentary, and yet somehow seemed very authentic and really engaged the racing fan. I have always felt that the stories of racing revolve around first and foremost the horses and their heroic deeds, with everything else secondary to that. I can easily do without high technology and mind-numbing analysis of betting patterns, as long as the equine heroes are allowed to captivate the viewer. Admittedly I also enjoy listening to highly knowledgeable, insightful people talking about their sport, be they trainers, owners, pundits, commentators, journalists or whoever. Sometimes in newspaper features you read of the interviewee’s ideal dinner guests, and my selections would be Sir Mark Prescott, Alastair Down, Johnnie Francome and Alice Plunkett. You know that the conversation would be lively and the stories fascinating, and probably scurrilous. My role would
only extend to wielding the corkscrew.

Like many people since the ITV announcement was made, I have been wondering about what should now change with the broadcasting, why it needs to change and whether there are any risks associated with it all.

Without any doubt there has been a dramatic decline in viewers under the most recent Channel 4 contract. Apparently Royal Ascot was down by 50%; similarly the Derby; while Champions’ Day last year had barely a third of a million viewers. Putting that into context: ITV often has well over 400,000 viewers to watch “important” darts games. ITV is probably second only to the BBC in terms of its prestige and popularity, so on that basis alone it ought to bring in substantially more viewers, and should be able to cross-promote racing to other parts of its sporting rights portfolio. After all, it covers top events such as the Tour de France (brilliantly), French Open tennis, Six Nations rugby and Euro 2016. Telling the stories of a sport well and connecting to viewers ought to be among their core competencies, so there isn’t any likely reason as to why they can’t do as good a job, if not better, than Channel 4. Indeed I actually feel that the overall standard of Channel 4 coverage has been excellent and they have probably been criticised somewhat unfairly. From a technical and content perspective they have done well – although like many people I believe that the programme had become dull and somehow lacked the fun and chemistry of the Alastair Down / Johnnie Francome era.

On the change front there is a need for a significant clear-out from the current Channel 4 team. Selecting the anchor presenters will be critical. Names that have been suggested include Oli Bell (RUK), Ed Chamberlain (Sky football presenter), Matt Chapman (ATR), John Inverdale (BBC), Mark Pougatch (ITV’s lead football presenter) and of course Nick Luck to transfer across. Even Jeremy Kyle’s name has gone into the frame. Personally I’d love to see Johnny Francome and Ruby Walsh closely involved, rather than any of the current ex-jockeys. And do bring back Alastair Down, but definitely not John McCririck. Gina Harding should definitely be in as well. While I’m neutral on more or less technology, I’d certainly like to see much stronger content coverage of the horses themselves, both on the track and behind the scenes.

A big debating point will doubtless revolve around bookmakers and the betting coverage. It is easy to forget that only a few years ago, Channel 4 had to be paid money from the Levy Board grant to ensure that there was coverage. Now, with the legislation change that allowed bookmakers to advertise on TV, there is a massive revenue stream flowing from the bookies’ marketing spend. This source of revenue is doubtless one of the major reasons for media companies being so keen to bid for the racing rights. As always with bookies though, they will expect a lot in exchange. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll see some real innovation in bookie offerings that can then become woven into the new coverage. ITV 7, anyone (or a modern version)?

Finally, are there any risks? I suppose the biggest, by a considerable margin, is that the viewer decline continues and racing finds that there isn’t that much interest any more in racing programmes per se, but that the British public only really likes racing as a backdrop to concerts, ladies’ days, fashion shows and prodigious drinking. Another one, I fear, is that we see an accelerating trend towards two tiers of racing: fabulous high days but, alas, far too many days of mediocrity. This could easily be reflected in the two streams of the ITV platform. The quality and success or otherwise of the ITV4 broadcasts will be critical.

I for one wish the new ITV broadcasts the very best of luck …. and next time I’m in Chester on a Saturday afternoon I think I’ll even pop into The Little Oak and see whether there’s a new generation of racing enthusiasts cheering on the latter-day equivalent of the ITV 7.

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