Channel 4 not to blame for racing switch off

There’s no shortage of folk keen to point a finger and blame the producers of Channel 4 Racing for the low viewing figures at the recent British Champions Day meeting at Ascot.

Nonsense. That’s akin to blaming burgers, booze and drugs for the death of Elvis Presley. He chose to take them.

Or a tunnel in Paris for the untimely passing of the Princess of Wales. She got in a car driven by a drunk and chose not to wear a seatbelt.

We should be thanking Channel 4 Racing and the production team for the increasingly improved coverage of racing.

Since IMG took over as the production company in January 2013 the quality of the racing coverage has vastly improved.

To deny that is to ignore the obvious. You don’t need to be a television producer to know it. All you have to do is sit down, put your feet up and revel in the brilliant camera work and direction.

They’ve made improvements steadily and with imagination.

There has been the odd cock up that every live television show since the start of time has experienced. But they have been very few and far between.

The innovations from executive producer Carl Hicks have taken coverage of racing in the UK to a new and much improved level.

Some viewers still harp on about how much better it was in the old days, conveniently forgetting Saturday afternoons filled with rubbish racing broadcast through a winter fog, and race commentaries that were not in the same league as those of Simon Holt and Richard Hoiles.

The rose tinted spectacle wearers pine for the days when the airwaves were awash with Derek Thompson clichés. A time when the increasingly incomprehensible John McCririck babbled on, talking gibberish and constantly pronouncing the names of horses incorrectly.

In a previous article written many months ago, I agreed that we all miss the presence of Alastair Down.

There were, however, justifiable reasons why the new production company chose not to have him present live. You’ll just have to accept my word on that one. Using Alastair to script and voice over pre-recorded VT packages is a good compromise.

Since the new look Channel 4 Racing went on air nearly three years ago, I have followed its progress wearing two hats.

One as a TV producer, the other as a fan of racing and punter. I appreciate that there is still a terrestrial broadcaster with the balls to transmit live racing.

The keyboard critics seem to concentrate on the presenters. But what about the thing you are tuning in for? The racing. Surely that’s the most important part of the coverage.

There’s many a day when I’m too busy to watch every minute of the coverage. I have Channel 4 Racing on in one room, with the sound up and one ear on alert should there be an interview I want to watch.

But, due to my work for members of VG TIPS, I might only go into the next room to watch the actual race and post race interviews. I’d love nothing more than to be able to put my feet up and watch the entire coverage.

The fact is that since 2013 I have watched more racing on Channel 4 than I did previously. The entire presentation package is better than it used to be. IMG transmit via Channel 4 more of the best quality race meetings than was the case prior to 2013.

There’s no denying the recent viewing figures are disappointing.

A 34% fall in the number of people watching Champions Day this year compared to last is alarming.

But that does not take into account an earlier transmission time and the fact that sports fans were spoilt for choice as to what to watch on Sataurday.

I don’t blame the producers of Channel 4 Racing. Far from it. I blame racing.

Channel 4 is seeking to win a new racing deal from 2017. But much could change at the broadcaster before then.

I shall tell you what to worry about when it comes to watching racing FREE on terrestrial television. Concern yourself more with how the current government might threaten the very future of Channel 4, and less about whether Nick Luck is the right man to present Channel 4 Racing (for me, he is).

If the government sells off Channel 4 it’s doubtful a new owner, whose only care will be for making money, will invest in the coverage of racing. (The loss making Channel 4 News, the best UK national news programme, will also be under threat).

Rod Street, British Champions Series chief executive, said: “We anticipated viewing figures may suffer due to the meeting’s early start, which avoided a clash with the Rugby World Cup quarter-final.

“Moving an hour earlier was absolutely the right thing to do, not only to avoid a head-to-head with the rugby but also because Ascot racegoers travelling by train would have been competing with thousands of rugby fans on their way to Twickenham.

“However, we are still surprised by the figures, as we believe Qipco British Champions Day is worthy of a larger number of viewers, especially since we recorded our best attendance on Saturday [30,967] since Frankel’s last race in 2012, reflecting great interest in the day.

“Channel 4 introduced some terrific innovations, including the interactive Morning Line and new drone coverage, which is really encouraging and we must build on that when we return to the correct slot in 2016.”

I know from personal experience, writes Vernon Grant, that the way for a broadcaster to kill off a popular show that they no longer wish to transmit is to move its transmission slot.

Then move it again. And again. Until regular viewers give up trying to find the show they enjoyed watching. That’s not the case here. Channel 4 invest lots of money into the racing coverage.

But television viewers are creatures of habit. They expect a programme to start at the same time each week.

Move a transmission time forward – as was the case on Champions Day – and you risk losing viewers. That’s what happened on Saturday. Even I didn’t see the coverage live. I had to watch it back later in the day.

Rod Street and his team are doing their best to drag the marketing of a great sport into the current century.

I can only imagine that, at times, obstacles have been placed in their way by the BHA and by high profile trainers who believe the only spectators who should be allowed through the gates of a racecourse are those who fully understand all the nuances of a sport that can appear unfathomable to the newcomer.

Racing is constantly trying to attract a new generation of on course spectator. There are young and knowledgeable fans of racing out there. I see them on Twitter and it reassures me that they exist. If they don’t grow up to be adults that attend live race meetings then the sport has an uncertain future.

What troubles me is this. It appears to me that they are in the minority. The majority of young use the sport for two reasons. Some as a venue that can facilitate their need to get drunk. Others purely as a betting medium

There is a generation out there who only follow racing because they want a bet. Some people blame betting for racing becoming a minority sport but I’d suggest it has always been that.

My generation of racing fan is dying off. I followed on from my father and his love for the sport. Will the generation after me do the same?

Much as I dislike the manner in which the big bookies pay so little back to a sport they increasingly dominate, even I would not blame the increase in bookmaker advertising for people not going racing. Indeed, an argument could be made that even viewer people would actually have any interest in the sport were you to ban betting on racing.

You want to know what is turning me off racing? The quantity of poor quality race meetings.

If racing is in danger of losing me – and it is very close to doing so – then those in charge of the sport need to be very concerned. But for the improved coverage of the racing by Channel 4, I may well have watched my last race before now.

Entertainment value. That’s what dictates whether or not I watch a sport on TV or attend in person (when in the UK). I ask myself if the potential entertainment value is worth paying the price of entry?

I attend very few football matches when in the UK because, much more often than not during the course of a season, the 90 minutes of action is not entertaining and not remotely worth the exorbitant entrance fee. It’s cheaper to go racing. Until the last couple of seasons it’s where I got most of my sporting thrills.

But the British Horseracing Authority would have to pay me to go and watch by far the majority of fixtures they offer up each year. The dross.

Sellers, Claimers, Class 5 & 6 this and that. All weather racing at Wolverhampton, Southwell and whichever course has ripped up the turf this week to stage all weather shite the next!

The ever growing number of terrible race meetings staged in the UK is what is turning me off the sport. And I know I am far from alone. If football staged and televised a greater number of pub football matches than Premier League games, people would switch over to Bargain Hunt.

Tanya Stevenson, Geoff Banks, myself and many others who have loved the sport for decades can see that racing is killing itself. Like me, they want fewer race fixtures per year, but more top quality meetings; we know our plea will continue to fall on deaf ears. There are too many interested parties who want the exact opposite. They want to milk racing dry.

Listen up BHA. I’ve followed racing from the age of 7. I’m now 57. And I’m on the brink of quitting. Of walking away from a sport I’ve loved for half a century.

In a recent article by racing bookmaker and Morning Line regular Geoff Banks, he rightly shines a light on the quantity of other racing there was taking place on Champions Day, including races that went off in close proximity to the big event at Ascot.

If you invest so much time, effort and money into a relatively new venture called Champions Day, you shouldn’t then undermine the meeting by staging on the same day more than a handful of other, much inferior race meetings. It’s self-defeating madness.

As for those intent on blaming Channel 4 Racing for people turning off the sport; you’re wrong.

You are shooting the messenger. When it’s the message itself that is at fault.

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Read more of Vernon’s horse racing and football columns via his VG Tips website

Follow Vernon on Twitter: @lecrin

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