Why Channel 4 Racing is saddled with problems
The tribunal hearing between John McCririck and his former employers, Channel 4, has created lots of headlines about the broadcaster’s attitude towards its horse racing pundit’s controversial style, but the hearing has also reignited the debate about the station’s coverage of the sport.
McCririck and his legal team pointed out more than once that viewing figures for both ‘Channel 4 Racing’ and its weekly magazine show, ‘The Morning Line’, had dropped dramatically since IMG Media took over the production contract from Highflyer. The suggestion was that McCririck’s absence from our screens was the main reason – which is nonsense.
So if it’s not the ‘McCririck factor’, why has C4 lost huge chunks of its audience this year at a time when attendances at UK race meetings are on the up? Let’s not forget, horse racing is one of our top five spectator sports.
During the tribunal, C4 bosses said their aim for the station’s racing coverage was to attract a new, ‘upmarket’ audience of serious sports fans, not just racing aficionados. Hence the new-look studio, a new presenting team and a more magazine-orientated approach designed to take viewers ‘behind the scenes’ of the racing industry.
The problem is, I believe, that all three elements are failing, and C4 has a PR battle on its hands to re-establish its credibility as a horse racing broadcaster.
There’s the flashy but horribly-lit on-course studio (with presenters usually in matching dark blue) and the video replay system that’s a tenth as good as any on Sky Sports. The feature elements are invariably dull, but the worst aspect is the presenting team. McCririck may have gone, but that doesn’t mean C4/IMG have now got the right team.
The majority of the presenters are racing journalists. It gives the programming a sense of authority, but not personality or real insight.
In almost any other sport – football, cricket, even snooker – broadcast coverage is dominated by those who’ve played the game at the highest level. People who are respected by viewers because they’ve been there, done that. Those sports generally don’t use journalists as TV pundits and commentators.
Yet the only former jockey on Channel 4 Racing’s team is Mick Fitzgerald, and there are no ex-trainers. Racing professionals would help viewers understand the challenges and thrills of horse racing better than a journalist who’s never been on a racehorse.
And if you want to attract that lucrative 18-34 age group, why have a presenting team made up almost entirely of people in their 40s and 50s?
Surely the likes of Gina Bryce (who is used too infrequently by Channel 4 Racing) and former X-Factor contestant Jamie Hamblett would have more appeal? Or how about comedian Lee Mack, a former stable lad and wannabe jockey?
Where C4 is getting it wrong is in thinking all those potential viewers want to know which horses to back. The reality is that most people aren’t serious punters. They go to the races for a fun day out, and having a flutter is just part of that day out. They don’t bet on horse racing at home, yet racing on the telly is more about the betting than the sport, and a lot less fun and exciting as a consequence.
Unlike most sports, where you tend to root for a team or an individual, with horse racing unless you’ve a financial stake in the outcome it’s often difficult to have that emotional attachment. And with sport, if there’s no emotion involved it’s pointless watching.
That’s the biggest challenge for Channel 4, who I think could learn a lot from Sky Sports generally, but Sky Sports F1 in particular. Give the die-hard fans authoritative commentary and insight from people in the sport they respect, while giving the occasional viewers plenty of magazine-style content and interactivity, and helping them learn about the sport. And remember to deliver it all with a sense of humour.
I have no wish to see John McCririck back on Channel 4, but I hope the focus his case has brought on the way the broadcaster covers one of our major sports brings about a rethink. If so, all racing fans will have something to thank him for.