Every time we are told by racecourses and media people that the recent four-year Channel 4 rights deal for the exclusive terrestrial coverage of racing is good for the sport, a little voice from somewhere continues to ask, ‘Are you sure?’
Certainly, you can’t argue with the commercial justification, if the reported £15 million that Channel 4 has paid for the rights is somewhere near the mark.
Neither are these doubts related to the quality of Channel 4’s coverage. Of course, there are many contrasting views as to which channel puts on the best coverage and to the merits of the commentators they employ. But nobody can question Channel 4’s support of racing over the years or their sincerity in wanting to make improvements.
The doubts remain because of less tangible reasons. They are there because many of us share an ingrained instinct that when an event is covered by the BBC it is something special. As Edward Rosenthal wrote in last month’s magazine, “having your product on the BBC gives it an appeal and gravitas that no other channel has matched”. The value attached to BBC coverage may be difficult to express in monetary terms but it remains hugely important and valued.
Will racing retain any bargaining power if the BBC walks away from the sport for good?
It is connected with a unique ‘Britishness’ about certain events in our sporting calendar, whether it is Wimbledon, the boat race or Royal Ascot. Nobody else in the world can quite replicate the flavour and atmosphere of events like these and an essential part of this mix is coverage by the ‘Beeb’. Racing losing its links with the BBC is exactly that, a loss, and potentially robs it of something that it will almost certainly never be able to get back.
We should also recognise that racing on terrestrial TV is the sport’s most effective shop window. More people have been introduced to racing through television than by any other means. There are people who have never been racing who will watch it regularly on TV. There are people who have never been into a betting shop and who have hardly ever had a bet who still get great pleasure from horseracing via the television.
A casual interest to begin with can convert into a lifelong following. The BBC, with its higher audience figures, attracts a wider cross section of people. Those who might not specifically set out to watch the Grand National or Derby might first see these events on TV as casual viewers but then become regular viewers. It is the BBC, with its ad-free continuous coverage, that is better placed to work this piece of magic.
But now the deal is done, Racecourse Media Group must focus on a number of important issues not just on behalf of the racecourses they represent but for the whole sport. One hopes, for example, that Channel 4’s selection of the production company which produces the programmes will ensure that the quality of the programmes is paramount.
Then there is the issue of advertising. Concern has been expressed about the nature of advertising during Royal Ascot week and how this must not be allowed to impair the status of the event, while, more generally, a careful eye needs to be kept on the increasing blurring of the division between advertising and editorial content. Income from bookmaker advertising might be important but a more pronounced line needs to be drawn.
And lastly, while four years may seem a long time, if the BBC walks away for good, where, we must ask, will the competitive tension come from to ensure that next time round racing retains some bargaining power?
At face value the new deal with Channel 4 is good for racing – especially as the Levy Board would surely now reject any request for the continuation of its current near-£1m subsidy. However, the prospect of jam today but scraps tomorrow continues to make us very unsure.