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Clare Balding and Channel 4 Racing start fresh era on New Year's Day without John McCririck and Derek Thompson 01/01/2013
Greg Wood
Bookmakers and programme makers to win out but will the sport profit from the broadcaster's £20m gamble

At a lunch at a smart London restaurant earlier this month to launch Channel 4's monopoly on terrestrial coverage of horse racing, Jamie Aitchison, the station's sports editor, stressed one point several times.

The line which Aitchison was so eager to hammer home was that Channel 4 "have spent a great deal of money" to add marquee events like the Grand National, the Derby and Royal Ascot to their existing portfolio of racing coverage. He was trying to make it plain that Channel 4 is serious about racing, and will do whatever it takes to get the coverage right. The New Year's Day programme with Clare Balding and Mick Fitzgerald at Nicky Henderson's yard along with four races live from Musselburgh on Tuesday will be the first test.

Regular viewers will notice changes immediately, with a fresh title sequence and Balding, the station's high-profile new recruit, regularly anchoring the coverage. They will notice who is missing, too. John McCririck will be the most significant absentee from Channel 4 Racing from 1 January, although Derek Thompson, another veteran of nearly 30 years' standing, is among the other casualties of Channel 4's decision to hire IMG Sports Media to replace Highflyer Productions as the producer of its racing coverage. Alastair Down and Mike Cattermole also failed to make the new presenting roster, while John Francome did not even apply, due to his personal loyalty to Highflyer.

In addition to Balding, new recruits to the Channel 4 lineup include Balding's former BBC colleagues Fitzgerald and Rishi Persad, while Graham Cunningham, an incisive and perceptive analyst on Racing UK for several years, gets a long overdue chance to raise his profile.

Replacing veterans with young, or at any rate younger, talent is an easy and cost-effective way to refresh the look of any long-running show. It works for Blue Peter, and will presumably work for Channel 4 Racing too. Whether this also leads to significant changes to the substance of the programming as well as the style may determine whether C4R can retain and expand its current audience.

Racing is an unusual sport to broadcast, in that the action is concentrated into bursts of no more than five minutes. Channel 4's Saturday programme has now expanded to two-and-a-half hours, so even with, say, seven jumps races, the actual racing will account for less than a quarter of the running time.

This has advantages for a commercial broadcaster, since it allows many more opportunities for ad breaks than, say, a football match. But it also brings the problem of how to fill the extended gaps in between races, and since the horses can't talk, it is easy to fall into a lazy routine of betting shows, tipping and banter.

The line at the London lunch was that betting may receive slightly less prominence in C4's new regime, in favour of teasing out the human stories from owners, trainers and jockeys. Race and split times, an integral part of analysis in many major racing countries, will also feature much more prominently, even over jumps where times are often held to have less significance.

Yet since Channel 4's "great deal of money" – about £20m over four years – has been invested in the expectation of making a healthy profit from bookmakers' advertising revenue, it makes little commercial sense to reduce the coverage of betting. The huge variation in tracks and going conditions in British racing, meanwhile, means that race times have little more than novelty value without in-depth analysis, which may well cause the eyes of many viewers to glaze over.

Ultimately Channel 4's racing coverage under monopoly conditions is unlikely to differ radically from its coverage when it could be compared with the BBC. The recruitment of Balding is a significant coup, and the new faces on the team will refresh the look, but there is only so much that can be done, or needs to be done, to the basic format.

For racing as a whole the new deal looks like a good one, in the short term at least. The sport's place in the terrestrial schedules is guaranteed for the next four years, with a willing partner in Channel 4 replacing what often seemed an unwilling one in the BBC at several major events

And Channel 4 is paying for the rights, rather than being subsidised as was previously the case, so the sport is richer to the tune of £5m a year. Follow the money, though, and some potential problems for racing in the longer term begin to appear. The money is going to the big tracks, rather than being generated via the Levy agreement, whereby a percentage of profits from off-course bookmakers is paid to contribute to the funding of the sport. Indeed, almost every one of the bookmakers who will be queueing up to spend large amounts of money advertising in C4R's commercial breaks is based offshore, and so pay no Levy on their profits. One result of this deal, then, will be another subtle but distinct shift in racing's power structure, away from the British Horseracing Authority, which has a role in the Levy process, and towards the major racecourses.

Initially at least, viewing figures will also go down, with the Grand National in particular likely to experience a sharp drop. And at the end of the four-year contract, when those who negotiated it on racing's behalf have probably banked their bonuses and gone, will there be a bidding war for the next one? Or will Channel 4 be able to drive down the price, because the BBC are out of the game, Sky can't have exclusive rights to the Grand National, and ITV are not interested?

Channel 4 will get full value from its monopoly on racing, as bookmakers are falling over themselves to buy advertising slots. Whether racing is also getting full value will become clear only in a little over three years' time, when the deal is done for 2017 and beyond.

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