ITV Racing and the greater good
ITV Racing made its much-anticipated debut on Sunday and inevitably, the coverage divided opinion. It was a racing certainty that this would be the case no matter what team or approach ITV had opted for, as in common with their predecessor Channel 4 Racing, they faced an unenviable task from the outset.
One really cannot emphasise enough just how difficult of a task it is to find the right balance in the terrestrial television coverage of horse racing. There is no escaping the fact that horse racing is a complex sport and while the vast majority of those reading this are likely to be familiar with those complexities to one extent or another, that will not be the case with a significant number of those that tune into racing on terrestrial television. Thus, finding a balance that appeases established racing fans whilst not alienating less informed observers is a notably challenging test.
Channel 4 Racing produced some wonderful content in recent years, but they met with criticism for going too far down the road of producing coverage that was perhaps more suited to a specialist racing channel rather than terrestrial television. ITV Racing have clearly set out in a different direction, embracing a more relaxed style of broadcasting and seeking to explain the sport’s complexities with the aim of welcoming a new audience to the sport.
There are sure to be established racing supporters that criticise this approach and of course, they are entitled to their views. However, I would respectfully suggest that the bigger picture should be considered by those that already love the sport. Horse racing really should not fall into the trap of taking the value of terrestrial television coverage for granted. It offers our sport a shop window to a mainstream audience that is the envy of so many other sports. It is the single greatest recruitment tool that then sport has to attract new fans into the game. While those already bitten by the racing bug might prefer more technical coverage of the sport, it is so important to be aware of the greater good that can be achieved by coverage that caters to and educates the curious newcomer.
With this goal in mind, ITV Racing landed a coup in recruiting Ed Chamberlin. A vastly experienced broadcaster that is well known amongst a non-racing audience, he is a passionate racing fan that is essentially living his dream by broadcasting horse racing. The sport has no shortage of specialist racing broadcasters that would do a fine job on ITV, but very few have the genuinely fresh enthusiasm that Chamberlin will bring to the table and that is just what is needed to deliver the product ITV Racing are pitching.
One early observation of Chamberlin’s maiden performance was that he seemed slightly nervous in the opening exchanges of the programme on Sunday. This may have been unexpected from a man with such vast live broadcasting experience, but for me it did nothing but reinforce his suitability for the job. Nerves are a by-product of emotional investment. He clearly cares deeply about horse racing and he cares about doing a good job in presenting it. Moving from the security of the Monday Night Football studio into the quite literal stormy cauldron of Cheltenham has taken him out of his comfort zone and there is little doubt it will bring the very best out of him as a broadcaster as he pursues his passion.
In terms of how ITV Racing went about the exceptionally difficult task of covering the racing in a style that engages and educates the newcomer without patronising the more informed viewers, there was a lot to like about the way they approached it. To work well, such efforts will need to be subtle and concise. Simple things like Mick Fitzgerald explaining the height difference between fences and hurdles and Richard Hoiles giving a brief description of what a handicap race is achieved just that.
Their coverage to betting was also geared in the same direction, with Matt Chapman dropping in simple explanations of the odds into his typically energetic pieces from the betting ring. Chapman will always divide opinion, but that is exactly why he was such an important addition to the team. Whether one finds his mischievous and fun-loving enthusiasm for the game infectious or irritating, he engages people and that is what matters most.
On the subject of the betting coverage, how refreshing it was that the broadcast wasn’t bogged down with multiple interviews with bookmaker representatives. Bookmaker sponsorship is of course an important part of what makes the financing of racing tick, but television coverage of the sport has become saturated with such interviews and one suspects that there weren’t too many people watching that missed them.
Another excellent but divisive decision was to include Victoria Pendleton on the team. Given the perplexingly negative reaction in some quarters to her remarkable quest to ride at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, her appointment was always likely to garner a mixed reaction, but the naysayers are perhaps missing the point.
Victoria Pendleton is quite clearly not a horse racing expert, but she doesn’t pretend to be. She has been bitten by the racing bug and is able to communicate that passion and enthusiasm in an engaging manner that anyone that has been bitten by the racing bug can relate to. Rather than being a negative, her inexperience in racing is a positive, as she appreciates and verbalises the simple pleasures and beauties of horse racing that many of us that have been in the game for many years no longer notice as much as we should. She is a perfect fit for what ITV Racing are looking to achieve.
While much of this piece has focused on how ITV Racing is seeking to cater to the newcomer, there was plenty in there for the purist too. The excellent feature with Jonjo O’Neill will have been a highlight for many, as were some of the post-race interviews with engaging subjects such as Willie Twiston-Davies and Lizzie Kelly. The in-race footage, which included the creative use of drone cameras, also promises to be a positive feature of the coverage.
Other aspects of the coverage that hit the right note were the mid-race analysis from Luke Harvey and Tony McCoy. Their contrasting personalities make them a well-matched pairing and they worked well together. Alice Plunkett’s contributions in the saddling enclosure worked well, as did her interviews with various members of stable staff, which were a nice touch. Oli Bell may have had a relatively minor role in proceedings from Musselburgh, but he played his part in a notably assured, professional and likeable manner. The first episode of the Opening Show on Saturday will give him the chance to shine in a more prominent role.
In terms of the technical quality of the broadcast, there were some teething problems throughout the show, some of which were not helped by the inclement weather. However, for every issue that the viewer may have spotted, one can be sure that the production and technical staff noticed twice as many and will be working hard all week to remedy them going forward. There is also scope to improve the on-screen graphics, which were criticised for being smaller than ideal in places. All told, one can expect ITV Racing to very much come on from their first run and it will be intriguing to see the progression of the coverage in the weeks and months ahead.
To bring it all back to what the overall message is, the merits of the ITV Racing coverage is entirely a matter of personal opinion, there is no right or wrong answer. However, everyone in racing would be advised to consider the bigger picture before passing judgement.
With the future of gambling advertising in Great Britain set to come under serious scrutiny from the government in the near future, it would be ill-advised for anyone to take it for granted that horse racing will always be covered on terrestrial television. ITV Racing are doing the right thing in the long-term interests of horse racing in approaching their coverage with a view to enticing a new audience to the sport. This approach should be supported by those in racing now, as it will be no good appreciating the value of it if the day ever comes when racing no longer has terrestrial television as its primary shop window.