programme makers to win out but will the sport profit from the broadcaster's
At a lunch
at a smart London restaurant earlier this month to launch Channel 4's monopoly
on terrestrial coverage of horse racing, Jamie Aitchison, the station's sports
editor, stressed one point several times.
The line which Aitchison was
so eager to hammer home was that Channel 4 "have spent a great deal of money"
to add marquee events like the Grand National, the Derby and Royal Ascot to
their existing portfolio of racing coverage. He was trying to make it plain
that Channel 4 is serious about racing, and will do whatever it takes to get
the coverage right. The New Year's Day programme with Clare Balding and Mick
Fitzgerald at Nicky Henderson's yard along with four races live from
Musselburgh on Tuesday will be the first test.
Regular viewers will notice changes immediately,
with a fresh title sequence and Balding, the station's high-profile new
recruit, regularly anchoring the coverage. They will notice who is missing,
too. John McCririck will be the most significant absentee from Channel 4 Racing
from 1 January, although Derek Thompson, another veteran of nearly 30 years'
standing, is among the other casualties of Channel 4's decision to hire IMG
Sports Media to replace Highflyer Productions as the producer of its racing
coverage. Alastair Down and Mike Cattermole also failed to make the new
presenting roster, while John Francome did not even apply, due to his personal
loyalty to Highflyer.
to Balding, new recruits to the Channel 4 lineup include Balding's former BBC
colleagues Fitzgerald and Rishi Persad, while Graham Cunningham, an incisive
and perceptive analyst on Racing UK for several years, gets a long overdue
chance to raise his profile.
Replacing veterans with young, or at any
rate younger, talent is an easy and cost-effective way to refresh the look of
any long-running show. It works for Blue Peter, and will presumably work for
Channel 4 Racing too. Whether this also leads to significant changes to the
substance of the programming as well as the style may determine whether C4R can
retain and expand its current audience.
Racing is an unusual sport to
broadcast, in that the action is concentrated into bursts of no more than five
minutes. Channel 4's Saturday programme has now expanded to two-and-a-half
hours, so even with, say, seven jumps races, the actual racing will account for
less than a quarter of the running time.
This has advantages for a
commercial broadcaster, since it allows many more opportunities for ad breaks
than, say, a football match. But it also brings the problem of how to fill the
extended gaps in between races, and since the horses can't talk, it is easy to
fall into a lazy routine of betting shows, tipping and banter.
at the London lunch was that betting may receive slightly less prominence in
C4's new regime, in favour of teasing out the human stories from owners,
trainers and jockeys. Race and split times, an integral part of analysis in
many major racing countries, will also feature much more prominently, even over
jumps where times are often held to have less significance.
Channel 4's "great deal of money" about £20m over four years
has been invested in the expectation of making a healthy profit from
bookmakers' advertising revenue, it makes little commercial sense to reduce the
coverage of betting. The huge variation in tracks and going conditions in
British racing, meanwhile, means that race times have little more than novelty
value without in-depth analysis, which may well cause the eyes of many viewers
to glaze over.
Ultimately Channel 4's racing coverage under monopoly
conditions is unlikely to differ radically from its coverage when it could be
compared with the BBC. The recruitment of Balding is a significant coup, and
the new faces on the team will refresh the look, but there is only so much that
can be done, or needs to be done, to the basic format.
For racing as a
whole the new deal looks like a good one, in the short term at least. The
sport's place in the terrestrial schedules is guaranteed for the next four
years, with a willing partner in Channel 4 replacing what often seemed an
unwilling one in the BBC at several major events
And Channel 4 is
paying for the rights, rather than being subsidised as was previously the case,
so the sport is richer to the tune of £5m a year. Follow the money,
though, and some potential problems for racing in the longer term begin to
appear. The money is going to the big tracks, rather than being generated via
the Levy agreement, whereby a percentage of profits from off-course bookmakers
is paid to contribute to the funding of the sport. Indeed, almost every one of
the bookmakers who will be queueing up to spend large amounts of money
advertising in C4R's commercial breaks is based offshore, and so pay no Levy on
their profits. One result of this deal, then, will be another subtle but
distinct shift in racing's power structure, away from the British Horseracing
Authority, which has a role in the Levy process, and towards the major
Initially at least, viewing figures will also go down,
with the Grand National in particular likely to experience a sharp drop. And at
the end of the four-year contract, when those who negotiated it on racing's
behalf have probably banked their bonuses and gone, will there be a bidding war
for the next one? Or will Channel 4 be able to drive down the price, because
the BBC are out of the game, Sky can't have exclusive rights to the Grand
National, and ITV are not interested?
Channel 4 will get full value
from its monopoly on racing, as bookmakers are falling over themselves to buy
advertising slots. Whether racing is also getting full value will become clear
only in a little over three years' time, when the deal is done for 2017 and