I worked for Channel 4. In said regard not only can it be said I’m biased, but also in fairness I experienced first hand what it takes to produce the quality Racing show. Working for Channel 4 doesn’t exclude me from the debate.
I have never subscribed to the view, expostulated by the likes of Fitzgerald of RMG, Bazelgette of JCR or Harman of the BHA that Racing’s ‘reach’ would improve under ITV. This was their ‘spin’ on achieving four million pounds more in fees than Channel 4 was prepared to offer. ITV convinced Racing that it’s impressive share of viewers would benefit the sport, indeed that argument was taken forward. Racing chiefs however should never have permitted Racing on a Channel with 1 percent audience share. ITV4.
Quite what the Racing Post’s angle was with their weekly shrieking at what they described as that network’s failures, I struggle to understand. But it’s all quiet there now.
What’s often not understood is the fundamental difference between the two Channels. Whilst both are easy to find for less technically minded folk, such as pensioners, Channel 4 is a public service broadcaster, whilst ITV is a commercial network. A public service network will assume responsibilities a commercial one will not.
Channel 4, whilst in the hot seat remained fully committed to the sport. Their Morning Line outputted every week and month in broadly the same slot for years. It was known and understood. Racing was kept, again with few exceptions, on their main channel. People knew where to find it.
From the outset ITV only guaranteed a certain amount of shows on their main Channel, the residue to appear on ITV4 and even ITV3.
A few months ago, Mark Demuth, controller of sport at ITV said in an RCA seminar, that The Opening Show, which has notably struggled, needed to improve. That was a considerable understatement for a Racing show only hitting 30,000 viewers for it’s output at Aintree last year, the figures for many of the shows haven’t been made public, The brush. In the meantime, what has Demuth done about improving that show? He’s kept it on ITV4, and only after various 1970’s Cop shows have had the prime 8am slot, even on Grand National day. You see, that’s when most Racing folk and even non-Racing, would be watching.
ITV1 achieves around 15% of audience share. Channel 4 just 5%. With such a considerable advantage, should we not expect a considerable uplift in audiences? Racing chiefs though, signed up to a deal which consigned many of the meetings to ITV4, with just 1% audience share. Odd decision.
(Channel 4 production)
In fact, the total numbers of people watching racing through the year has declined in the millions under ITV. In its second year at Cheltenham declined by 4% on their previous year’s performance and was some 14% down for the Gold Cup.
So ITV has failed to improve on Channel 4 at both of the last two Nationals, the Cheltenham Festival meetings, Champions Day (0.5m) and Royal Ascot.
In 2017 the total viewers for Racing had declined by 3.4 million viewers from Channel 4. A figure not easily explained away by ‘uplifts in people watching racing on streaming devices.’ Or ‘the weather.’ Guess what, we always have weather.
ITV’s first effort at the Blue Riband Racing event the Grand National, experienced a decline of 18% during the race on Channel 4. That’s nearly 2 million less people watching our feature race. Why? Lack of promotion? Format?
You can ‘paint’ the numbers in many ways to suit your argument, and some will argue that. Such as percentage of audience share. But for me if the show is watchable, people will tune in, especially at 5.15pm. This change in time slot was an intelligent move by the Regulator. Whichever way you look at it, the ITV performance has been deeply disappointing, given the Channel’s evident dominance in share over Channel 4
The difference was people associated Racing with 4. With ITV, they simply do not. They often struggle to find their Racing. Channel hopping is a big deal.
So what’s gone wrong? For me the ITV afternoon format works exceptionally well for Royal Ascot, York and Glorious Goodwood, and I really enjoyed the coverage, indeed for me despite the budget spend, the style was more in evidence. The network has obviously attempted to widen the appeal of Racing to a different audience. These meetings work exceptionally well. A+
However, many of the other meetings, especially Aintree and Cheltenham are not based on fashion, social networking or garden parties at all. They’re about betting. In said regard, ITV has totally alienated the core audience for Racing, with a focus on Facebook and girls in nightclub dresses with orange legs.
People ask me why I’m so upset on this subject. Because I feel Racing should never have dropped a committed broadcaster, which guaranteed viewers 90 days Racing a year, a regular morning show and let’s also remember several evening highlight shows. Something ITV have quietly dropped I question their enthusiasm, and I don’t mean Chamberlin. I mean the controllers. Racing is not a good fit for ITV. They’re uncomfortable with the Betting and searching an audience that simply doesn’t exist, whilst alienating their existing fan base.
ITV show little appetite to improve the dismal morning show with consideration to moving ‘Ironside’ from the more favoured slot. What on earth are they playing at? Since when does a broadcaster be awarded a contract to show such an iconic sport, yet favour Colombo, I mean, haven’t we all seen every mystery solved already?
There’s far too much time spent on middle-aged men standing or sitting round a table telling us all what to think of Racing. Surely ITV realise it’s boring? Where are the Racing features, interviews with trainers, stable tours? And why don’t we hear from the eternally engaging Paddy Power on what Bookmakers have been laying. Quite why ITV has decided to outlaw Betting is simply beyond me. Racing is not a hybrid of ‘Good Morning Britain.’ It distances the product from its core audience. Bettors.
ITV’s ‘gameplan’ in selecting Chamberlin and Cumani, with Fitzgerald, Harvey, Plunkett over Luck, Cunningham, McGrath, had to be about ‘widening the appeal of the sport.’ All very well if you achieve that, which they have not, and if you’re careful not to outlaw the core viewer for Racing – the Punters. Chapman was taken on because he’s popular and could do his man of the people act. For me, Chamberlin and Cumani work. He’s a consummate performer. She struck me as a female version of Lord Snooty. I quickly changed my view when I heard her discuss horse actions and profiles. This is what I feel Channel 4 lacked. How does a horse move on the ground? Does his action favour Chester. Relevant.
Betting was the first consignee to the bin. That’s why Cheltenham and Aintree fail. People don’t tune in to Aintree for the joke fashion parade of the year, they tune in because they like a bet. Quite why ITV ignore the millions of people who watch the Grand National because quite a lot of them are in fact having their one bet of the year. Instead of the eternally dull focus on single white middle-aged males who used to ride in the National, why not rise to the ideal that Betting represents the appeal to many people in this country of the Grand National. Because they want a bet, or they’ve had a bet.
As for the weekly diatribe of poor quality pundits telling me, I have to think ‘its marvellous.’ I tip my hat to you for keeping a job. Not one of these types adds a single viewer. We’re not dribbling fools with remotes. We’re genuinely not interested in questions to aged jockeys about what it feels like to ride a winner. I think we’d all like to hear good jockeys like Fitzgerald start to tell us when a ride was good, and equally when it was bad in his opinion, or perhaps dare to criticise trainers who use horse welfare as a casual excuse to avoid a difficult race.
The future? There simply isn’t one with ITV. They won’t like the numbers.
Whilst ITV has made every attempt to widen the audience, it hasn’t been successful, in the meantime, they risk losing the interest of their primary audience – the punters.
Chamberlin will end up back at Sky because only they can afford him, and I feel that’s Racing’s loss. Cumani will end up on the sofa of Good Morning Britain, and eventually some wily controller will discover that the ‘marvellous’ lot, telling everyone how they need to react to Racing, don’t add a single bum on seat and get back to servicing the existing Racing public aat a time when they can view, and on one Racing Channel.