Channel 4 will become the exclusive broadcaster of British racing on terrestrial television from 2013, after winning the rights to screen all of the sport’s most prestigious events, including the Grand National, Royal Ascot and the Epsom Derby.
The new four-year deal, reported to be worth up to £20m, will see all the crown jewels of the racing calendar switch to Channel 4 next year, ending the BBC’s long-standing association with televised racing that stretches back to the 1950’s.
The corporation said that it put in a competitive bid to retain the rights, but it was unable to match the offer that Channel 4 put forward.
All of racing’s marquee events currently broadcast by the BBC, including Aintree’s three-day Grand National meeting, the Derby Festival at Epsom Downs, Royal Ascot and the British Champions Day, as well as the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow, will be shown on Channel 4 from 2013.
These meetings will sit alongside Channel 4’s acclaimed coverage of the Cheltenham Festival, Glorious Goodwood, the Ebor Festival at York, and races from the British Champions Series, along with key events at Newbury, Chester, Sandown Park, Newmarket and Doncaster.
Around 90 days of live racing a year will be shown on Channel 4 under the new partnership from 2013 to 2016.
“We are delighted Channel 4 is to become the sole destination for British horseracing,” said Jay Hunt, C4’s chief creative officer.
“These will sit alongside our established coverage… and means we can extend our distinctive approach to all the crown jewels of the sport.”
Channel 4 Racing has been a weekly fixture since the mid-eighties, and despite threatening to pull out in recent years, the broadcaster’s regular coverage of the sport has been highly received and valued by the racing industry and fans alike.
The broadcaster promises to introduce new innovations to its coverage to make the sport more appealing to younger and broader audiences.
Jamie Aitchison, Channel 4’s sports editor, said: “I am delighted Channel 4’s 28-year association with racing has now arrived at the point where the industry has demonstrated such confidence in our ability to showcase its complete portfolio.
“This is an opportunity for us to work together to grow the sport, painting the full picture of both the flat and jumps seasons to attract new viewers whilst rewarding those loyal viewers we value so highly.
“Channel 4 fully understands the heritage and cultural importance of British racing, but also the sport’s thirst for a bright future, and we relish the challenge ahead.”
Despite its heritage in racing, there are fears that the profile of the sport’s iconic races such as the Grand National, which attracts the biggest annual audience for racing (8.8m in 2011), could be hit by moving away from the BBC.
But the reaction within racing circles to the new Channel 4 deal has been largely positive.
Simon Bazalgette, the chief executive of The Jockey Club – which owns 14 racecourses including Aintree, Epsom Downs and Cheltenham – applauded the new deal.
“Channel 4 has been a tremendous partner for British racing to date and this new deal is a huge boost for our sport,” said Simon Bazalgette, chief executive of The Jockey Club,
“Armed with racing’s crown jewels, including the John Smith’s Grand National Meeting and the Investec Derby Festival, Channel 4 now has the platform to enhance the promotion of our sport all-year-round.”
Richard FitzGerald, chief executive of Racecourse Media Group (RMG), who led the negotiating team on behalf of the racing industry, said: “This new deal will not only deliver increased revenues for British racing, but with all of our sport’s crown jewels in its portfolio, Channel 4 offers a compelling vision to innovate the way racing is broadcast.”
Events such as the Grand National and Royal Ascot, which have been important parts of the BBC’s sports portfolio for decades, will be shown on Channel 4 for the very first time in 2013.
It is thought that the key to the new deal was an assurance from the commercial broadcaster that it would protect the integrity of the prestigious Royal meeting at Ascot in June.
The event is only meeting left on the racing calendar that does not allow a sponsor to add its name to any of its races.
“This is a tremendous announcement for racing,” said Charles Barnett, chief executive of Ascot Racecourse.
“A one channel scenario will enable us to tell our stories clearly and consistently, and obviously Royal Ascot is fundamental to that.
“I would personally like to thank BBC Television for everything they have done for racing and we look forward to continuing to work with their other platforms.”
The new arrangement will see all 35 races in the British Champions Series, featuring flat racing’s premier races, being broadcast on Channel 4.
Rod Street, chief executive of British Champions Series, said: “Since its inception, we’ve aimed to showcase the very best of British Flat racing within the QIPCO British Champions Series via a single domestic terrestrial broadcaster.
“We believe this new deal with Channel 4 will make the Series even easier to follow for the racing and wider sports fan. Hugely exciting times lie ahead.”
Channel 4 Racing began in March 1984, when it took over ITV’s midweek racing coverage.
With the demise of ITV’s flagship World of Sport in 1985, Channel 4 gradually inherited all of ITV’s output over the following five years, including the Epsom Derby meeting, as ITV phased out its racing coverage.
Channel 4 Racing – Theme Music (1980s-1990s) Courtesy of espmadrid
It’s first major coup was winning the rights to screen all the major race meetings at Cheltenham in 1995 from the BBC.
Whilst the Epsom Derby moved back to the BBC in 2001, it took over weekly coverage from racecoures such as Newbury, Ascot and Haydock over the next decade as the BBC cut back its racing output to just the marquee events.
In recent years, Channel 4’s own future with the sport was also uncertain. The broadcaster had threatened to pull out of the sport entirely if it lost its contract to cover the Cheltenham Festival, its biggest event in terms of audiences.
To counter that threat, the racing industry gave Channel 4 a subsidy to maintain its weekly coverage, which regularly attracts about 800,000 viewers every week.
Channel 4 also benefitted from a landmark change in the law in 2007 that scrapped the ban on television advertising of gambling, allowing bookmakers such as William Hill and Betfair to heavily advertise their latest odds and prices during the broadcaster’s racing coverage.
But the new deal, which brings in some of British sport’s most popular events, will see a return to a more traditional arrangement where Channel 4 pays for the rights to screen its coverage.
Production of Channel 4 Racing, currently provided by Highflyer Productions, will go out to tender for the start of 2013, at the same time that Channel 4 will begin its exclusive terrestrial coverage of all UK horse racing.
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