British racing’s falling TV share: Critics missing the point

Clare Balding on Channel 4

British racing enjoys nationwide terrestrial television coverage on 52 Saturdays per year, and those same cameras are there for most of the biggest midweek meetings. But Channel 4, the exclusive broadcaster since the BBC pulled out at the end of 2012, have been on the receiving end of some harsh criticism in the British media since the viewing figures for 2013 showed fewer people watched their coverage on 73 out of 90 days compared to 2012. Many observers have blamed the more serious style adopted by the producers – global sports media company IMG took over from the long-standing production company Highflyer at the start of last year – for the fall. Is this fair? Fairness is virtually irrelevant with so many other, more important factors at play, James Willoughby argues.

Editor’s note: James Willoughby is a presenter and analyst for Racing UK, a major satellite subscription racing channel in Britain.

Who sits in front of the television on a Saturday afternoon? It might seem a prosaic inquiry, but it introduces a healthy dose of realism to the debate about racing’s televised future. 

Not the nuclear family, whose children are usually itching for outward-bound freedom, especially after a week at school; not the fan of football, rugby, or other major sports whose match-day events are concurrent; not the itinerant shopper bent on a shot of retail therapy after a week of stressed employ; not the day-tripper en route to their nearest stretch of coast.    

Who, then? Hard-bitten racing fans and devoted punters, certainly, but even they may choose a satellite option or feature among the denizens of betting shops or actually go to the races.

Who watches television on a Saturday afternoon was a significant detail even as long as 15 years ago, pondered by researchers Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill in a London School of Economics report entitled “Young People, New Media.” This pointed to Saturday afternoons as being particularly low ebb for interest in watching television among the next generation of potential racing fans. (Other experts have reported similar findings.)

Racing is rightly concerned about growing its future popularity, but growing its TV audience may be futile: The majority of major races in Britain take place on a Saturday afternoon. And, according to several surveys, teenagers now watch less than two hours of television per week, instead consuming their media in compact form on mobile devices and the Internet.   

Stop me if you’ve heard this before then: The popularity of TV coverage of racing is falling. It’s a long-term trend for which a litany of reasons has been forwarded, generally having little association with objective truth.

Certainly, those commenters who pin the falling ratings experienced recently by Channel 4 Racing in Britain on personality and style are missing the point with characteristic narcissism. Don’t they get the irony of this? If a sport with as many physical dimensions as racing really depends on something as ephemeral, then the sport must lack substance and is surely doomed. Honestly, the sound of axes grinding has been ear-splitting since the old Channel 4 crew was moved on at the start of 2013. 

In truth, TV racing on the major channels has faced a funding crisis for a while now. The public service broadcaster BBC gradually ceded the major events to the commercial sphere with an outcry mostly from those within the sport, and even Channel 4 threatened to pull out in 2005 due to rising costs. Since then, funding has been raised to keep terrestrial coverage alive, with the latest deal lasting until 2016. Who knows what happens then? 

In 2010, I was sent a link to a New York Times article, “Reasons for the Decline of Horse Racing.” My first reaction was ambivalence: surely this has all been done before? Indeed, reading the first few bullet-points was like a crossing off the numbers on a bingo card: Corruption? Check. Other gambling attractions? Check. The suburbanization of the populace? Check. 

However, there was one section that did provoke my interest. Sub-headed “Inability to Present Racing Effectively on TV,” it claimed: “…The problem has been that we have never been able to show the sport to its best advantage on TV. It’s much like ice hockey – exciting sport to watch live – hard to follow and misses something on the tube.”

Is this valid? Either way, the salient point is worthy of consideration for its novelty alone. Forget the cult of personality, the accusation is that racing is not seen to best advantage on TV. It’s certainly true that, at least in Britain, racing is presented in broadly the same way as 50 years ago. 

Sure, technology has seen an improvement in camera-work and we now have high-definition pictures, but the structure is unerringly similar mainly because viewers intransigently want the same. You don’t care for artistic shots of the easy winner if your “certainty to be placed” is fighting it out for third.

Perhaps we need to stop putting this burden on a terrestrial broadcaster. If you are a hard-bitten gambler, watch the race on satellite TV. Before the day dawns when there is no racing on mainstream television (and before that term-of-reference is obsolete), it is at least worth trying to innovate. Other sports, the latest of which is football, have reached for the technical toolbox to bring the viewer physical data that racing broadcasts in Britain have lacked – speeds, weights, and times.

It is often said that the barriers to entry are too great for those outside racing to feel a sense of belonging - specifically, the anachronistic ratings systems in imperial measurements, with nebulous conventions that ‘x’ pounds of weight corresponds with ‘y’ lengths between runners. Again, I’m far from sure this is a worthy concern - other activities of mass interest have their technicalities, which many seem able to overcome.

Nowadays, 24-hour global exposure to sports and an archive of footage on the Internet makes it hard to excite fans with mere words. British racing has just been graced by inarguably one of the greatest racehorses in history, but measuring his ability on an arbitrary ratings scale can’t have the same impact as the physical dimensions of speed, acceleration, weight, power, and energy. 

The impact the sport needs to make on media is the same one Frankel made on the sport: Explosion in a two-minute time frame. Multi-hour terrestrial television broadcasts do bolster betting revenues with off-course bookmakers, which is a significant consideration for the sport’s revenues. But footing the bill is the concern because broadcasters have asserted that racing’s TV demographic on Saturday afternoons is probably better – and definitely cheaper – served by classic films.       

When columnists write about a problem, they invariably look for someone or something to blame. In my view, that’s about as scientific an approach as using one measure to predict a random variable when a dozen others are known to affect it. Racing television has evolved like it has because of the pervading culture around it – the attitudes of peer-group leaders within the sport and the apathy of some television companies in thinking it needs to change.

The sport itself is hierarchical, as far as opinion forming is concerned, and deeply conservative in terms of the innovating tendencies of its power brokers. Many people who are enmeshed in racing like it for the same reasons others might consider it still living in a benighted era in TV terms. They are, in effect, cultists who might pay lip service to any worthy mutation of the sport they know and love, but actually do much to preserve its cipher. 

However, everything has to change in the end, and a dip in viewing figures may be enough to force an evolution in the structure of racing broadcasts, though not perhaps a revolution.

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