I am far from in the camp that Channel 4 Racing has been bad for the sport in recent years. It is far too simplistic to pin the reduced viewing figures purely on Channel 4’s shoulders and there are much wider ranging reasons why the sport is not appealing as it once was. The coverage can be slightly cringe worthy at times, especially on the less scripted ‘Morning Line’, but then most TV is, in this age. No doubt if Channel 4 turned their racing programmes into constant serious insight, criticism would still remain and instead revolve around that it needs to be more light-hearted.
A new start could be hugely beneficial for the sport and a change in scenery could be what is required. With a new impetus put into the advertising and promotion given to racing, combined with enjoyable and informative features, racing could begin to expand its fan base once again. It could also go the other way, and there is undoubtedly pressure on ITV to get it right and ensure the sport stays away from further stagnation. With the launch not until January 2017 and ITV knowing they won the rights months ago, they have ample time to consult with experts at the best route to take and guaranteeing they make the correct appointments.
The appointment of Ed Chamberlain to head their coverage is a shrewd start and certainly can help bridge the gap between the majority of the public and the sport. Followers of racing are now awaiting news on further appointments to help present. Undoubtedly a couple of the Channel 4 crew will transfer over to ITV, and rightly so. They know the business and as already said the coverage was mostly of a high standard. Personally I think they must get Claire Balding if possible, especially for the big meetings. The nation adores her and she knows a lot more than she lets on around the sport. Another female, Gina Harding, should make the transition and away from the awkward ‘banter’ with the likes of Nick Luck, she can again help enlighten the public. Rishi Persad, was in my opinion normally on the ball and light hearted in his approach and a role should be found outside of the main studio for him. Sir AP McCoy was the straight talking pundit we all expected, and ITV need some legends of the sport to prevent criticisms that the presenters are not ‘racing people’.
Outside of the Channel 4 team, there has been a mountain of calls for ATR broadcaster Matt Chapman to be utilised. I most certainly agree, and there is no better interviewer currently in the sport. ITV will be wary that Chapman can be quite outlandish, but this is what the sport needs to draw in new fans and as long as Chapman can remember he is not presenting to racing purists all of the time, he will undoubtedly be a success. Oli Bell of Racing UK is another top pundit in my eyes, and although ITV may consider him slightly too serious for mainstream coverage, a role should be found somewhere within the team for him. This could be as one of the betting experts or a form presenter as it is vital that ITV ensures it does not alienate the audience it already has and does not dumb down the coverage too far. However, the main job of the new ITV crew is to attract new fans and those who have lost interest in recent years. Racing UK and At the Races have the core support covered, and ITV should not aim to win these purists over, but at the same time it must not completely alienate them. Understandably, this is a tricky balance to get right and is perhaps where Channel 4 went wrong.
There has been negativity around the decision to award the coverage to ITV, mainly centred on the news that a lot of the racing will be moved to ITV4 rather than the main ITV channel. It is easy to see why ITV bosses have decided on this, but it can work as motivation the ITV Racing team and with impressive early figures there is not much competition on most Saturday afternoons on ITV to dispose of. ITV4 also hosts some good sporting action, such as the Tour de France, and it is not so much relegation. ITV simply like to put the majority of their sport on this channel.
All in all, the decision to move racing to ITV can be seen as an opportunity rather than worrying times. It needs to be seen as a fresh start that will allow the sport to begin growing again whilst allowing racing to then begin solving some of its underlying issues. The pressure is on to get it right and those not required from Channel 4 will be watching ominously. Either way, it is important that racing fans give it a chance and are not too quick to criticise because they feel they have to. Lets wait and see…