On Friday evening it was announced that Channel 4’s association with horse racing would come to a close in 2017. ITV has claimed the rights to broadcast nearly 100 days of racing, of which ITV1 will cover a minimum of 34 days, as well as a weekly morning magazine show to take the place of The Morning Line. Channel 4’s last racing broadcast is due to be on 31st December 2016, with the reshuffling of racing on terrestrial television being partly due to Channel 4’s acquisition of the F1, which would surely cause unavoidable clashes. The intricacies of the deal are still largely unknown at this time, but is the apparent downfall of racing on television due to the way in which the sport is broadcast, or are external factors simply shifting?
The culprit of the supposed decline in Channel 4’s coverage has become the alarming changes in viewing figures, but it could be that people are simply falling out of love with racing or switching off for other reasons than the coverage it has been given. Underlying issues have remained largely unconsidered throughout the debate, and it could be that even if racing were to be regenerated in order to attract a wider audience through ITV, fundamental flaws could obstruct this. Who broadcasts sport is irrelevant if people are not willing to watch it, which may well be the case – you cannot change the bare popularity of a sport by displacement. Perhaps it is the product that is the issue, not the way in which it is presented.
Its no secret racing is often regarded as a closed, or even elitist, sport to which those initiated infiltrate through family folklore. I for one have found this is far from the case, but the archaic pre-conceived barriers that horse racing is for the select few, have yet to be vanquished. Channel 4 have been criticised for looking down on their audience, which is just as ludicrous as it sounds. It takes time, effort and patience to understand the complexities of horse racing. And, for a panel of professional, racing-savvy individuals to appeal to both first time viewers, whilst satisfying the committed racing contingent, is a battle destined to continue.
It appears the priority of ITV will be to encourage a new audience, which without doubt would be of great aid to our sport. As biased as I may be, the unyielding dedication and loyalty Channel 4 gave to racing is undeniable. Evidence of the channels’ evolutionary success was clear to see when the sensitive issues posed by this years controversial St Leger result and ever challenging Grand National meeting, were tackled in a sensible, raw and genuine way. The recent employment of 20-time Champion Jockey, 2010 Sports Personality of the Year and recently knighted Sir Anthony McCoy, along with the insightful jockey cam action, again exercised a refreshing move towards a new and unique viewing experience. Although I do not doubt ITV can and will do the same, the declining viewing figures may act as the proverbial dangling carrot to introduce commercialised or artificial gimmicks to attract the all important wider audience.
The fact is, at its core, racing is a very niche sport. How many people’s affinity with a sport begins by watching the television at midday on a Saturday? In todays high-speed world it would not be a surprise to see viewing figures suffering primarily because of how we are able to watch television. Sky+, On Demand and radio stations are proving popular alternatives for those who can’t commit to the rather inconvenient prime time of terrestrial racing. Although in the modern age television is the primary output for most news and sport, the problem could also be rooted elsewhere. Kempton was the host of a memorable King George meeting with monstrous performances from both Cue Card and Sprinter Sacre spearheading the fixture, but the usual sell-out crowd of 22,000 people were not there to witness it. On the other hand, Cheltenham’s sublime New Years Day card attracted a record breaking crowd of 34,505, showing how the concern placed on viewers, as opposed to spectators, is somewhat warranted.
The reconstruction will mean racing is fragmented between two channels – ITV1 for the larger meetings, and ITV4 for both the morning programme and other racing. Channel 4’s coverage held all racing under the same comprehensive umbrella, meaning those who criticised the move from the BBC to Channel 4 now find themselves in an arguably worse position. This fragmentation could propel viewing figures into further decline. ITV4 in particular is a considerably lesser known channel, and crucially is not widely available in Ireland, making it appear a less desirable proposition. ITV as a whole is a corporate business, meaning the air time and attention to lower-level racing could suffer. I hope the cluster of familiar faces racing has claimed as its own do not disappear in favour of more generic candidates, and would like to see racing retain its character and charm through the people we know and love. In a transitional time where many peoples jobs are on the line and uncertainty is rife, we can only hope for a fluid switch. The likes of At The Races and subscription-based Racing UK will be licking their lips at the advances, for, as like ITV, new opportunities will arise for them to showcase horse racing.
The almost paradoxical attitudes of the horse racing community assures the alterations will be far from welcomed. In its bid for improved ratings, ITV Racing must be clear in its objectives and coordinated in its approach towards this new product, which must effectively combine the extensive knowledge demanded by the established racing community whilst captivating and engaging a new, wider audience.