The Tower on the new face of Racing
AFTER 32 years that helped define the sport, Channel 4 finally bowed out of racing this week with an emotional farewell at Kempton. What comes next is the question on everybody’s lips, with a bold new dawn promised by ITV as they attempt to inject new life into the terrestrial TV landscape.
There can be no doubt that Channel 4 has taken racing, and the national hunt game in particular, to some thrilling heights over the past three decades. But television is a results business and viewing figures have long had C4 executives off the bridle. Despite a range of innovative tactics, the product strangely became tarred with the “stale” brush for much of its 18 months. A victim, perhaps, of ditching popular talent like John McCririck, the brand never did recover in the eyes of many punters. And with the strong ongoing output of rival offerings, AtTheRaces and Racing UK, it left Channel 4 trapped on the proverbial rail with nowhere to go.
So it came as little surprise when a switch of broadcaster was announced earlier this year. And to ITV goes the baton, with the steady hands of racing fan Ed Chamberlain at the helm. This looks a wise move on many fronts, offering a fresh face at the head of affairs for what will be a pivotal new chapter. The brilliant Nick Luck has every right to feel down on his…well…luck given the sterling work he’s done with Channel 4 over the years. A more professional and knowledgeable anchor you couldn’t wish for, but he was always likely to prove a casualty as ITV strived to chart a new course. And in Chamberlain they have someone that is not only instantly recognisable to sports fans from his time on Sky’s football coverage, he is a self confessed racing nut. It looks a rock solid capture.
Oli Bell is another who will offer ITV viewers a comforting transition. The rising star of Racing UK over the past few years, he will front’s ITV’s version of The Morning Line and should be a stand-out in the role. His ability to hit the ground running will prove key as the channel bids to get off to a fast start.
In the commentary box, another casualty has fallen in the shape of Simon Holt. By quite some distance the country’s top caller of races, he has been overlooked in favour of Richard Hoiles. Again, this is all about ITV wanting to establish a new sound and, although Hoiles is a well known voice to those of us who follow the game every day of the year, it is Holt we associate with the big Saturdays that ITV need to deliver on.
In and around the paddock is where ITV will probably come under most scrutiny. Executives have taken the decision to broadcast on the go, as it were, and will take Chamberlain’s studio out into the thick of the action. It’s a bold move and something BT Sport utilise to good effect with their coverage in the likes of football and rugby. This move towards a more ‘edgy’ style of presentation is sure to bring a new dynamic to armchair fans, but whether it’s all style and lacking in substance is the key question. That’s where ITV will look to their cast of pundits to provide the relevant balance of colour and craft – and they appear to have struck the right tone.
As soon as the decision was announced, fans up and down the land had Matt Chapman at the top of their shopping list. His enigmatic style of broadcasting has been a joy to watch on AtTheRaces and his chance on the main stage is long overdue. Bosses at ITV have pledged to let him loose and they insist we’ll be getting the natural Chappers – which is good because anything less would be an abject failure on their part. The likes of Mick Fitzgerald and AP McCoy were obvious choices to provide some continuity and insight from the C4 days and it’s great to know their familiar faces will be on board. Jason Weaver and Luke Harvey are another two who have served their apprenticeship on AtTheRaces and, to hardcore racing fans, will fit like a glove. But to the wider audience they will also carry that ease in front of the camera that should prove a winner.
Alice Plunkett, Sally-Ann Grassick, Rishi Persad, Hayley Turner, Frankie Dettori and even Victoria Pendleton are also on board for the ride, while Francesca Cumani is an intriguing signing to co-host the flat season coverage. What’s clear is that channel bosses want plenty of variety and are attempting to appeal to all demographics. The heartwarming sight of veteran Brough Scott in the line up should be proof of that.
Whatever the outcome, though, ITV has very big boots to fill. I was once lucky enough to spend a day behind the scenes with the team at Channel 4 Racing – and the dedication behind the camera was truly astounding. What few viewers would have realised was how many genuine racing fans worked on that product. As slick as their material was, it was no less well researched and with a genuine passion for the game. Sometimes you don’t realise what you’ve lost until it’s gone, and our only hope for racing must be that in 12 months’ time, we are not longing for the broadcaster that was curelly cast aside as tired and past its sell by date.
Good luck ITV, over to you.