It’s been called a “seismic revolution” in the televising of British racing, and indeed most observers seemed to feel the shockwaves when it was announced on New Year’s Day that terrestrial coverage of the sport will disappear from Channel 4 screens at the end of 2016 after 31 years and re-emerge on ITV next January.
The tremors have certainly been bubbling away ever since.
There’s been a fair amount of ‘I told you so’ from those who didn’t like it when Channel 4 took over the last of the big meetings from the BBC three years ago and promptly kicked out their long-standing production company, Highflyer. Channel 4 had just landed racing’s ‘crown jewels’ (Royal Ascot, the Epsom Derby, the Grand National and Champions Day - to go alongside the Cheltenham Festival, which they already had), and it was felt they needed to spruce things up a bit.
Highflyer put in a bid, but the contract went instead to IMG, who came with an impressive CV and the promise of an exciting new way of doing things. But their tenure has been plagued by falling viewing figures for the big events, which the critics say are down to a more serious style of presentation, which has taken the fun out of watching racing on TV.
Those critics are wrong, by the way, but more of that later.
It’s not all been anti-C4, mind you. There are some with a sneaking fear that ITV, in an effort to pull in the kind of increased viewership numbers redolent of the country’s biggest commercial channel, will let rip with a style and a schedule that have no understanding or respect for the traditions and significance of the race program that is the cornerstone of the sport.
Will the new deal give with one hand and take away with the other?
At the heart of this is the issue that only the very biggest days will be shown on the mass market ITV1 channel (34 racedays). The other 60 that are part of the new four-year deal will go to ITV1’s baby sister, ITV4, a channel whose audience is little more than a third the size of Channel 4’s (according to BARB, the British Audience Research Board).
And, while the 34 days include those aforementioned ‘crown jewels’, there are an awful lot of what can reasonably be considered showpiece races that look destined for the minority channel - including the 1,000 Guineas and most of the other big events at Newmarket.
So, while the new deal gives with one hand (more viewers for the days on ITV1, which typically has nearly three times Channel 4’s audience share, according to BARB), the worry is that it could take away even more with the other.
But all this misses the point.
Little more than three years ago, the sport, desperate to keep showcasing its wares on mainstream TV as the BBC continued to wind down its coverage, was actually paying Channel 4 to keep on televising the sport.
Then came the turnaround. The BBC finally pulled out altogether, and Channel 4 paid a reputed £15 million for the rights to be sole terrestrial broadcaster of British racing.
The moment racing was transformed into a must-have TV show
This time round, they are understood to have bid even more - but the sport’s appeal has become so strong that it wasn’t enough. Both ITV and Sky are believed to have bid around £30 million.
So what happened so quickly to transform British racing from a product television didn’t really have much time for to a shiny must-have that had three of the biggest broadcasters scrambling over themselves to acquire it?
Is it a testament to the success of the Great British Racing project, which has been plugging away since 2009 with initiatives like the British Champions Series to raise the profile of the sport? Is it an effect of the continuing windfall of Qatari sponsorship money, which has elevated still further the standing of the country’s top racing festivals?
Or maybe it’s down to the great depth of equine talent that has bestrode the tracks of Britain in that same timespan? Have the public been so enamoured with the feats of Sea The Stars and Frankel, Kauto Star and Hurricane Fly that racing has re-invented itself as a growing armchair entertainment?
It’s none of the above, of course.
There’s just one reason for the turnaround - and it’s all to do with accountants, balance sheets and cold, hard facts.
And one delicious irony.
Responsible for this sudden metamorphosis in racing’s fortunes, this not insubstantial new revenue stream for an industry that has always struggled to pay its way, are the very people who have been so often held accountable for the fact that racing in Britain is so much poorer than it is in most of the other major racing jurisdictions.
Racing’s switch to ITV is no reflection on Channel 4’s efforts
The golden goose was a piece of legislation five years ago that allowed gambling to be advertised on television. That opened the floodgates. The bookies suddenly had a much more effective vehicle than before for promoting their services (ironically the ones they like to push the most are online gaming and betting on sport, rather than horseracing). And they were prepared to pay well to use it.
Don’t think for a second that ITV would have given racing a second glance for any other reason. They want a piece of the pie while it’s still hot. End of story.
All of which is no reflection one way or another on the job the Channel 4 Racing team have been doing these past three years.
Sure, the viewing figures have been dropping for the big events, but what do you expect? They used to be shown by the BBC. You can’t compare a Channel 4 audience with a BBC audience. And there are so many other ways to watch racing, so many rival TV stations showing other stuff, so many other things to do. It’s 2016. All television audiences are falling. Get used to it.
In reality, Channel 4 Racing has held its own on the other days - those that weren’t on BBC1, the ones that will be on ITV4 from next year.
The sport’s switch to ITV has nothing to do with any perceived failings on Channel 4’s part, and everything to do with the size of the shop window ITVoffers on the big occasions - and the extra money, of course.
ITV will probably come up with one or two ITV-style things for their coverage of the very biggest days (what price Ant and Dec fronting the Grand National show?) but at the end of the day it’s the races themselves that take centre stage and it’s a pretty safe bet (and a nod of recognition) that most of the current team on C4 will transfer fairly seamlessly to the new one on ITV.
In the meantime, British racing should take a moment to enjoy the privileged position it holds here - two dedicated non-terrestrial channels show every race live between them, and nearly 100 racedays are guaranteed to be screened on terrestrial television for the next five years at least.
How the Americans must envy that.