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Channel 4’s early racing exit means landmark terrestrial TV blackout 05/12/2016
Chris Cook
• New Year’s Eve will be first blank Saturday for racing in recent memory
• Broadcaster’s final screen action will be at Kempton on 27 December

Channel 4’s coverage of horse racing is to end four days earlier than anticipated and the broadcaster will not screen action from Newbury or Lingfield on the last day of the year. Logistical difficulties related to the handover of equipment to ITV are said to be the reason for the change of plan, with ITV Racing to make their first broadcast from Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.

As a result, New Year’s Eve will be the first Saturday in recent memory when no horse racing has been scheduled to be shown on a terrestrial channel. Only abandonments or Christmas Day have kept racing off TV screens on Saturdays in recent years.

While the news has only just been confirmed, Channel 4 says it raised the issue with the sport many months ago. The main problem is said to be that much of the necessary outside broadcasting equipment, owned by a third party, will be taken from Kempton after the fixture there on 27 December and driven over to Cheltenham, where ITV will take charge of it.

Had Channel 4 still been racing’s broadcaster for 2017, it would still have had access to the equipment at Cheltenham and could have used it in conjunction with cameras at Newbury to broadcast on 31 December.

Without access to the equipment at Cheltenham, Channel 4 has decided there is no practical way to put together a broadcast of the necessary quality that would also be a fitting farewell to its involvement with the sport, which has lasted more than three decades.

Sources stress this is just one of several logistical issues that make the Newbury broadcast a practical impossibility in the circumstances. The non-availability of some key production staff members is also believed to be an issue.

That farewell will now be made on 27 December, when Channel 4 will screen action from Kempton’s Christmas meeting as well as the Welsh Grand National from Chepstow. In the meantime, insiders insist there has been no decline in commitment or effort, pointing to features that have been made for Saturday’s Tingle Creek Chase broadcast, the commentator Simon Holt having visited the stable of Gary Moore while the former jockey Mick Fitzgerald has filmed a How to ride Sandown segment.

A Channel 4 spokesperson said: “Channel 4 has discussed with RMG and Newbury and made clear that the logistical problems involved in handing over racing to another broadcaster in such a short space of time mean that we will not be broadcasting from Newbury on 31 December.

“Channel 4 is proud of our 32-year association with British horse racing. Over this period, we have continually delivered above and beyond our contractual requirements.

“We have delivered more coverage of racing than any other terrestrial broadcaster and our investment in award-winning weekly coverage has delivered a 10 million audience for the Grand National and numerous innovations, from the jockeycam to the horsetracker.

“Our final racing broadcast will be on Tuesday 27 December and will retain its strong production value. We would like to thank the horse racing industry for 32 fun-filled and dramatic years and wish them the very best for the future.”

Andy Clifton, a spokesman for Newbury, said it was disappointing that the fixture, including the Grade One Challow Hurdle, would not be shown on a terrestrial channel this year. However, he said Racing UK plans to make its broadcast from Newbury free to air on 31 December, “so that armchair viewers can still see the action”.

“We’ve had a great relationship with Channel 4 and now we’re looking to the future,” Clifton added. ITV is expected to show the equivalent fixture when it takes place on 30 December next year.

ITV has struck a four-year deal, from 2017 to 2020

Reports at the time suggested the deal was worth £30m (€36m/$38.1m), marking a significant increase on the previous cycle, when Channel 4 reportedly agreed to pay between £15m and £20m for the rights over four years, from 2013 to 2016.

ITV will show nearly 100 days of racing each year, including all the marquee events on ITV’s main channel, such as the Cheltenham Festival, the Grand National, the Derby, Royal Ascot, British Champions Day, Goodwood Festival, Ebor Festival and the St Leger.

ITV will broadcast a minimum of 40 days of fixtures on its main channel and nearly 60 on digital channel ITV4, in addition to a magazine preview programme broadcast every Saturday morning on ITV4.

A total of 14 days of jumps and 26 days of Flat racing will be shown on the main channel.