Does anyone remember – or know, for those under the age of 60 – how football commentator Hugh Johns described England’s fourth goal in the 1966 World Cup Final? If the answer is yes, give yourself a pat on the back. If the answer is no, don’t be too hard on yourself.
The truth is most people weren’t watching the aforementioned game on ITV and listening to Johns. They were enjoying the coverage on the BBC and hearing Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous line “some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over… it is now!” To this day it remains one of the most quoted and well-known phrases in the history of British television.
Having your product on the BBC gives it an appeal and gravitas that no other channel has matched, before or since Alf Ramsey’s team won at Wembley.
For over 60 years, the national broadcaster has televised horseracing to the nation, capturing moments including Red Rum’s three Grand Nationals, Dawn Run’s Gold Cup and Frankie Dettori’s Magnificent Seven.
But all that will change from 2013, when Channel 4 will become our sport’s sole terrestrial broadcaster, having signed a four-year deal said to be worth around £15 million. The Grand National, Royal Ascot, Derby, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Champions’ Day will all migrate across the network.
Much subsequent comment has highlighted the benefits of capturing the entire sport’s output, including all the ‘crown jewels’, on a single channel, which I must point out has been a staunch supporter of racing. Indeed, the potential now exists to really co-ordinate and drive the narrative of racing that some feel is key to attracting new followers.
Yet, bizarrely, the issue of watching racehorses – that’s what we all enjoy, right? – that will, of course, be impacted by a channel that makes its revenue from advertising breaks, appears to have been overlooked. But then, maybe you are of those people who get a buzz from watching Michael Parkinson repeatedly trying to flog life insurance. I am not.
Overall, Channel 4 Racing does a fine job, however I always prefer to watch continuous coverage of racing, without interruption, as I would with any television programme or film. I know others feel the same way. But now that option has been taken away.
Returning to Dettori’s Magnificent Seven, the BBC was not scheduled to show every race from Ascot on that momentous day 16 years ago but, aware of what was happening and with the capacity to do so, took the decision to broadcast the seventh race live. Would Channel 4, with its ‘commercial’ approach and inflexible programming, have done the same?
No. Because it has “commitments to other people with its schedule”. And that’s according to a Channel 4 Racing spokesperson. Remember the 2010 Dubai World Cup, when, owing to a late off-time, the programme was forced off air before the result of the world’s richest race could be announced? Can you imagine the damage to racing’s reputation if Derby day was subjected to the same treatment?
While Channel 4 offered more money for the rights to racing than the BBC – unsurprisingly, given the corporation’s desperation to make savings – I wonder whether those in charge of the media rights negotiations should have looked at the bigger picture, rather than apparently opting for the broadcaster prepared to stump up the most cash now.
Doubtless those involved will say they did exactly that, however history tells us that racing has a difficult task if it aims to convince as many people to watch the sport on Channel 4 as on the BBC.