Racing backs a winner with switch to ITV -- but must also look at the bigger picture

RETURN OF THE MAC? -- larger-than-life racing personality John McCririck was sacked from Channel 4's coverage three years ago. Will Big Mac be back on ITV?

RETURN OF THE MAC? -- larger-than-life racing personality John McCririck was sacked from Channel 4's coverage three years ago. Will Big Mac be back on ITV?

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Those of us old enough to remember the ITV 7 in the days of ‘World Of Sport’, presented by Dickie Davies, received an unexpected nostalgia surge as 2015 morphed into 2016.

For it was announced that ITV has seized, from Channel 4, the TV rights to show racing in a £30 million deal spanning four years.

Memories of John Rickman, Brough Scott, Lord Oaksey, Raleigh Gilbert and Co will be rekindled from January 2017 when the channel revisits a sport it last broadcast back in 1985. And it’s a fair bet that the ITV 7, or something similar, will play a central role in their coverage.

However, this isn’t a development that demands too much looking back. It’s one that helps to shape the future of racing, and the need to ensure the sport remains in the public spotlight.

The Racecourse Media Group (RMG) deserves enormous credit for brokering a deal with Britain’s second biggest mainstream channel -- and doubling the value of the previous agreement. It underlines the healthy position the sport finds itself in, only a few years after it was brandishing its begging-bowl and actually paying Channel 4 to cover races. Even Sky Sports has been waiting in the wings this time to embrace racing if the ITV partnership faltered.

The decision to jump TV ship from Channel 4 has been driven by viewing figures, which have plummetted in the last three years. For instance, the audience for Derby Day at Epsom has shrunk to a record low, while an average of only 367,000 viewers watched Qipco British Champions Day last year, compared to 1.1 million on BBC 1 in 2012.

Such figures have provoked a stormy debate within the racing media that has been depressingly one-dimensional and simplistic. Viewing figures alone should not be the sole consideration. Audience share is a key statistic too. For example, if only 500,000 watched the Grand National on TV, there would be much collective wailing and gnashing of teeth. But if such a figure represented 50% of the entire audience watching TV at that time, it would be regarded in a very different light.

Furthermore, the spread of the digital revolution, combined with changing lifestyles and habits, cannot be ignored. The fact is that fewer and fewer people are watching TV, particularly the terrestrial channels. We can catch up with our favourite shows or films on our laptops, our tablets and our phones, while competition from the satellite and specialist channels is fierce.

Racing is blessed to have two of those specialist channels, and few of its followers would not have access to Racing UK or At The Races these days. Long gone is the need to be glued to terrestrial TV on a Saturday afternoon to find out how bets have fared. Results can be found at the push of a button, wherever fans might be, and races from every meeting in the UK and Ireland can be reviewed later in the day via any platform they choose.

And yet, against such a backdrop, racing continues to thrive. Attendances at courses are soaring, while betting interest and turnover remain robust. C4’s viewing figures have had not one jot of a negative impact on the sport, so it is hugely encouraging to hear RMG negotiators accept that TV audiences are eroding and fragmenting, and that the need to explore digital growth, as well as audience reach, was an important factor in the decision to join forces with ITV.

Channel 4 can be proud of the commitment it has shown to racing. The decision in 2012 to ditch the Highflyer production team, replace it with IMG, and jettison presenters such as John McCririck, Derek Thompson, Alastair Down and Mike Cattermole was widely criticised and alienated many viewers. But I’m far from convinced this debate should be about personalities. OK, one or two members of the current team should not be allowed near a TV studio, but the likes of Clare Balding, Nick Luck, Graham Cunningham and Jim McGrath are brilliant operators. And OK, while ‘The Morning Line’ now receives more stick than viewers, the critics conveniently forget that at the time Highflyer lost the contract, which also coincided with the departure of the popular John Francome, the show had become painfully stale and sterile.

In contrast, much of IMG’s slick coverage has yielded award-winning broadcasts. It’s just that in a rapidly-changing TV world, C4 cannot hope to compete with the likes of ITV. It cannot hope to reach out to the same numbers. To reinforce the point, let’s return to audience share. In 2014, its share of the total TV audience was 10%. ITV’s was 21%. BBC’s was 33%.

Such figures explain why racing has reached for the remote and switched to ITV. The volume and diversity of its audience are irresistible. And although some worry that 60 of the 94 racedays earmarked for coverage will go out on ITV 4, it makes palpable sense to concentrate most efforts on the showcasing of racing’s crown jewels on the main station. Most current devotees of the sport were hooked initially by one of those crown jewels, be it a Grand National or a Cheltenham Festival. Attracting new followers by means of the same process of engagement is surely more logical than throwing blanket wall-to-wall coverage at them.

Racing has almost certainly backed a winner with the ITV deal. Nevertheless, the landscape within the media world (newspapers as well as TV) is complex and evolving all the time. Evidence is growing that the importance to the sport of terrestrial TV coverage is being overplayed. Both football and cricket are jogging along very nicely thankyou without a lot of terrestrial exposure. It’s vital that racing also looks at the bigger picture.

HORSES TO FOLLOW

Here are ten horses to have caught the eye over the Christmas and New Year holiday. Follow them until the end of the season.

BALTIMORE ROCK (David Pipe novice chaser)

CLAN DES OBEAUX (Paul Nicholls juvenile hurdler)

HESTER FLEMEN (Nicky Richards novice chaser)

IMAGINE THE CHAT (Rebecca Curtis novice chaser)

IVANOVICH GORBATOV (Aidan O’Brien juvenile hurdler)

KILLULTAGH VIC (Willie Mullins novice chaser)

O’FAOLAIN’S BOY (Rebecca Curtis staying chaser)

THISTLECRACK (Colin Tizzard staying hurdler)

UP FOR REVIEW (Willie Mullins novice hurdler)

ZULU OSCAR (Harry Fry handicap hurdler)