‘it’s great to be here’
If I had 50 pence for every time I heard that from a racing pundit or anchor – I would be swimming in a lake of champagne for the rest of my natural. The next time I see anyone from ITV, RUK or ATR mumble those bumbling fumbling words with their plastic smile, staring down a card of 4 runner races, I’m going to send them all to have their balls cut off. And that includes the men.
Before I open my trap. I want to say one thing to the boo boys about commentating on ITV and its output. Everyone knows what a huge star I was for Channel 4, I said what I liked, rattled a few trainers and one very gobby jockey who gets run out of more finishes than Excelebration. The days of pundits with something to say though, appear numbered 🙂
Do I miss Channel 4? Yes very much, it was a terribly professional output, winning awards for its coverage, regardless of what the Self serving Racing Post had to say about it. Led by the best anchor in British sport. Balding.
Am I bitter? Yes, I suppose I am. The suits have replaced a perfectly good product for a clone on the next door channel, who consign the show between The Cooking Channel and babestation, and predictably the numbers have tailed.
Whatever people tell you about how easy it is to find ITV4, it simply isn’t. Their average audience share (I looked it up, – jeez, how sad am I?) is 1%. Yes you got that right. ITV1 However gains 15% of general audiences.
Now we find Racing being bounced onto ITV3. How to relegate a sport to obscurity in very rapid order? Move it about to bolster 1970’s cop show numbers. Anyone not totally dedicated to Racing-simply isn’t going to find it, less bother with it.
Racing was represented by three main parties, all basing their decision purely on the fortunes of ailing racetracks. Messrs Fitzgerald (Racecourse media Group) Bazelgette (Jockey Club Racecourses, the architect of Kempton’s downfall) and of course Harman, the patsy for the BHA. Yet another loser they’ve backed.
These characters signed a deal in the full knowledge they were consigning Racing from terrestrial to satellite. For 4 million I believe the extra was. Why? I name these parties so you can make sure you bombard them with your views.
Of course they envisaged a channel that could match the BBC for the crown jewels, Grand National, Derby, Royal Ascot were areas they imagined we could regain the type of numbers the Beeb gave us. To boot I’m sure global pool bet revenues were a factor to tracks starved of money by bookmakers. Persuading the BBC back to the sport, for less money of course, was not on the table. Why? Beats the hell out of me.
Let’s remember they argued ‘reach’ as the determining factor. That by binning the highly committed Channel 4, showing 90 days live racing a year! Somehow they thought it was achievable to beat their audience with ITV’s better share. Even though that audience share is largely based on Saturday night with Ant & Dec.
They backed a ‘commercial’ channel, who base programming on advertising cake, as opposed to a public service broadcaster, which both Channel 4 and BBC are. This is a key point. They balance every decision not just on money or viewers, but their importance to the community.
So the Lingfield All Weather finals headed to satelite and of course no Opening Show on that morning either. It was felt ‘The Sweeney’ (1970) – too important to sack. Incredible but true. Same true of Cheltenham, the Opening Line on ITV4 at a time racegoers couldn’t watch. ITV were committed to Lorraine. A star around longer than my mother in law.
Therefore up to Cheltenham we had managed circa 3 million less people watching our sport. And of course we know now the Opening Line managed a paltry 31,000 for the first day of the famous Grand National meeting, a record low for Racing. Once again, people acting for this sport contrived to make a giant mess. Don’t panic though – each one of these ‘executives’ will be in their offices on Monday. Everyone in racing sleeps with their sister. Jobs are not performance based in Racing.
The role of the betting based rag the Racing Post cannot be understated either. It shrieked for months about Channel 4’s viewing figures. When ITV National numbers were embarrisingly announced as far lower than the output of Channel 4, the hypocrisy leapt to the fore in their defence in several notably obsequious columns. Mind you, it’s been a terribly smart move of the Producer of the Opening Show to introduce a revolving door of Post reporters onto its sofa, not least of all the Editor of the Racing Post. I don’t doubt the executives of Channel 4 feel pretty cheated by Bruce Millington et al. Far too few people stood up to say they enjoyed the Channel 4 difference.
Can ITV arrest the decline? Well it certainly has the potential, we all know that. But right now, let’s get one thing absolutely clear. It doesn’t have the commitment. It’s consigned a leading sport to a sub channel on up to 50 days a year. To include some of our most famous events. ITV simply has to show the resolve Channel 4 did. Of course we know ‘The Professionals (1980) ‘ is likely more viewers than Plumpton, but what Channel 4 never did was sacrifice Racing in favour of John Wayne.
ITV have to be forced to give racing the prominence it deserves as a leading sport. Or the contract has to be set aside. It was a bad deal for the sport. If the architects stand in the way, they should be removed. Recognise the reality and make changes.
The last show of the Franklin era of Channel 4’s Morning Line achieved 350,000 viewers for the 1st day at Aintree. ITV’s quite dreadful Opening Line managed 31,000, and has dipped by 46% on Channel 4’s Morning Line. Of course the output is on the wrong channel, and the wrong time. Noted. But who’s fault is that? Franklin’s crew contained some of the baddest pundits in racing. Notably Francome and Mac. Quite why Big Mac was dropped, when at that time he WAS racing escapes me. It was a poor decision. I don’t doubt one the Channel 4 executive at that time was leaned on to make by those in the sport who think you grow it by telling everyone it’s fabulous. Racing’s most dangerous element.
The coverage has became vanilla, bordering on banal. Francome left of his own accord. I can’t speak for John, but I’m guessing when you remove some of his sidekicks and replace them with those with nothing meaningful to say, he knew his time was up. Should Mac return? Arguable. Should Nick Luck return? Definitely. I never understood the vitriolic attacks against Luck, one of the sports most consumate performers.
Certain producers, and their bosses seem to take the view racing has to be a diet of patronising ‘it’s great to be here’ and ‘what’s it like to ride a winner?’ Allow me to point out to you that the last crew to grow audiences, were the ones who took dead aim at the sport when it demanded it. It doesn’t stop people going racing. It adds value to a show and interest in the sport, oh yes it really does. If you’re about viewers Mr Cooper (OL Producer), split up the grinning pair of Bell and Harvey. It really is the most appalling fluff. Punters are your audience and they don’t want to hear it. Numbers are shocking and you need surgery. You’re force fed a diet of wonderful industry dramas to utilise. Irish non triers, Windsor prize money, field sizes in jumps pattern races. You ignore it all. Get some power on the sofa and start talking about what people want to hear.
You do have a solution, standing on the grass. Matt Chapman. Extremely popular with viewers on the more enterprising Attheraces. He gets rave reviews, because he dares to speak his mind. Of course I really do understand why Chapman is out doing that thoroughly pointless clerk of the course slot – it’s because you’re frightened of what he might say. He’s not Balding or Luck, isn’t possesed of their polish, but he engages.
And what happened to betting? Have you any idea what a huge share of audiences watch the show because they’re punters rather than breeders? You’re totally ignoring them. Racing and gambling like Bread and Jam. One exists for the other. Not this beauty of the horse nonsense. Who are these creative geniuses who don’t realise the majority of racing viewers bet on it?
Give Chapman his head as anchor of the Opening Line. Let him succeed or fail. Give him fiery people to bounce off. Put the smiler Harvey out to grass, and discover betting again.
The afternoon show, I have to say I really enjoy. Again though it’s likely to struggle on the wrong channel on its lesser days and if those in front of the camera don’t know how to properly engage the viewer. Chamberlin is ex football. He won’t be used to a diet of ‘marvellous’ which pervades Racing coverage all to often. If you’re about keeping him on the show, there has to be more football about the coverage.
Finally allow me to quote from Andrew Franklin in todays letters page. He maintained racing would likely continue to experience declining numbers if the product didn’t undergo the kind of essential radical reform as undertaken by other sports. Cricket, football, grand prix, rugby. All significantly upped their game whilst we feed people 4 runner heats with horses 20 pounds apart in rating. Further we allow trainers to rip our best races to shreds. The sport is overloaded with product, underpaid in prize money at the middle and lower tiers, desperately struggling in the winter and more and more about a dire all weather content. Racetrack groups have been warring on betting and losing millions in income by extension, that air of snobbish indifference to the needs of betting. Sport put on to keep tracks in work, and to please snotty trainers. It’s not harsh, it’s fact.
That’s got to be wrong. The current BHA isn’t man enough to take on this giant task, nor does it have the appetite to take on its masters, the racetracks. A new, thoroughly independent advisory has to be created to bring the sport into this century.
ITV, for its part has to forced to place the sport with exactly the same prominence as Channel 4 or it should be dumped. Racing is not a satelite back number.