SPORTS VIEW: New Channel 4 Racing team more Real Madrid than Barcelona as new show takes first stride

Sport On The Box is delighted to welcome its first regular contributor to the website – Vernon Grant.

Since 1980, Vernon has been a producer of a number of televised sports programmes for major broadcasters, including Sky Sports, ITV and Channel 4, as well as several independent production companies.

He now runs the sports betting website www.vgtips.co.uk, and will give SOTB his unique and informed take on a number of topics and issues related to sports broadcasting both past and present.

Vernon begins his new regular column by reviewing the opening transmissions of the new-look Channel 4 Racing, which relaunched on New Year’s Day with Clare Balding and Nick Luck heading up the refreshed on-air team.

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Follow Vernon on Twitter: @lecrin

I have produced enough new or new look television programmes to know that all such ventures take time to mature.

You really should not judge a TV show by its first airing. But to hell with that!

The twittersphere is awash with AP’s (that’s armchair, and not assistant producers). So let me pull up a seat and join them as they tweet instant critiques of the new look Channel 4 racing coverage.

Carl Hicks is an Executive Producer with a fine pedigree and he will know that few of us like to see a favourite programme on the receiving end of a facelift. Even if we did put a boot into that face from time to time.

I imagine Hicks may have been tempted to kick the cat when, on New Year’s Day, a spanner was thrown into the works of the relaunch he oversaw. The meeting at Cheltenham was called off. That left Channel 4 with racing from Musselburgh and lots of time to get to know each other.

It was all very casual. The dress sense I mean. The gents wore open necked shirts to make them seem like boys, not men. And betting guru Tanya Stevenson reverted back to the tomboy look to make her seem more like one of the boys.

I felt for Tanya that day. She gets plenty of criticism on Twitter but Tanya does know her stuff and, when relaxed, is a positive booking. But her position on the edge of set made her look like she was an intruder who was trying to get in camera shot.

Like one of those annoying fools who used to make faces while standing behind her departed on air partner John McCririck. By the way, why does someone who left home that morning feel the need to call home and say “can you see me on telly?”

Graham Cunningham made his first appearance on Channel 4 racing that day and, unlike some armchair producers, I like what he has to offer. I like his voice and his opinions. He lacks comic timing but has thankfully mainly erased the annoying habit of looking down the camera lens when being interviewed.

The new team had new toys to play with. The touch screen TV built into the desk of the new look set didn’t excite me on that first day. But it did allow Graham to show us in fine detail, and using super slo-mo, how a certain horse performed. That was interesting and informative.

‘The Morning Line’ is the popular Saturday morning show that previews the racing that day and we got to see the new face of that show on January 5.

Well some of us did!

Many viewers expressing their opinions on Twitter remarked on how dark the set was. The bookie Barry Dennis even changed his television to see if the problem was at his end. It wasn’t.

I actually liked the dark, sultry appearance of Nick Luck in part one.

Channel 4 team discuss the day’s racing ahead in their new studio
(Pic: Channel 4/IMG)

True, it did look as though it was being filmed in a brothel late at night, rather than Sandown at breakfast time. But I’ve filmed in many a brothel and have no problem with that!

By part two those in the production gallery had seen the light.

Either the sun rose at Sandown or the floor manager had sent the ‘runner’ (these days known as the assistant to the assistant unpaid intern) to B&Q to buy some light bulbs.

This ensured we could all see the trio of presenters and, what do you know?

There was no more getting shirty. The men were wearing sweaters and looked more comfortable as a result.

Some people simply aren’t met to be in front of camera in shirt only and chief presenter Nick Luck, and the most knowledgeable member of the team, Jim McGrath, are two such men.

Tanya, meanwhile, was back out on the turf doing what she enjoys most, talking to fellow followers of the betting market while dressed in a hat stolen from Robin Hood.

Use of a big desk rather than a sofa does make the Saturday morning programme look less relaxed. But maybe that is deliberate.

For all we enjoyed the banter between the likes of the now departed John Francome, John McCririck and Derek Thompson, race analysis could get lost on the old look ‘Morning Line’.

The big loss, in every sense, is the absence of one of the finest sports journalists of our time. And I am clearly far from alone in thinking that sending this Denman of racing reporting out to stud is the biggest mistake made by Jamie Aitchison, Sports Editor at Channel 4.

Alastair Down may not have a face for television, but he did have a presence. He presented and interviewed well and, if knowledge truly is power, then his departure is a mighty loss to racing coverage on terrestrial TV.

The new set looks too much like something I would expect on a cable or satellite channel. One punter on Twitter called it a mobile burger van.

That’s unfair, but I would rather have a sofa and good race analysis. That is what we punters watch the programme for.

A Saturday morning show about racing on terrestrial TV should be in a less stiff looking setting, but be authoritative when it comes to content.

And the editorial content of the new look The Morning Line was better. No question. The on screen opening titles and on set graphics were better.

I don’t like the opening music and would, if possible, have retained the much more upbeat previous theme. But please! No more music packages aimed at the ‘yoof’ TV audience.

On day one I loathed the on screen blue graphics, but they may grow on me. But only if they grow in size.

Twitter reassured me that I was not about to have something in common with Stevie Wonder. I saw so many viewers complaining that they couldn’t read the small lettering (though there is no truth that Barry Dennis nipped out to buy a new 50 inch TV).

Graham Cunningham and Jim McGrath were given more time to analyse racing, which was good.

Nick Luck will get the hang of the touch screen device eventually – though it will remain painful to watch him hit the wrong button in the meantime. Older viewers will remember ‘The Golden Shot’ and I was shouting at the TV “Nick… left a bit, right a bit, fire”!

Nick Luck begins his reign as Channel 4’s regular Saturday presenter
(Pic: Channel 4/IMG)

My spirits rose when I realised the old stager, the so called ‘Guest Test’, had finally run out of stamina and been sent off to learn dressage.

Then my heart sank when I realised there was a new upstart on set. ‘A Mug’s Game’ would now be the cornerstone of light entertainment on ‘The Morning Line.’

Why? Have we not consigned the days of ‘3-2-1’ television to a dusty bin?

Do any viewers who are not into racing tune in to this programme just to see a brief and silly quiz? No.

Do regular ‘The Morning Line’ viewers want it? Judging from remarks sent to Channel 4 Racing on Twitter, clearly not.

The star attraction came later that day with the first big day of racing for the new look Channel 4 coverage, including the Welsh National at Chepstow.

But those viewers waiting to see the ubiquitous Clare Balding present were to be disappointed. Though C4 are understandably using her voice, face and name to brand and promote the fresh coverage, Clare is only signed up to present a limited number of programmes throughout the year.

Clare is a professional broadcaster and one now very much in demand. She doesn’t go racing much. I doubt she has time. Appearances on ‘Loose Women’ and now the host of a quiz show, the greatest threat to her TV career is overexposure (often referred to in TV circles as ‘doing a Smilie or a Vorderman’).

You will see Clare on Channel 4 at meetings where fascinators and hats outnumber horses. As you shall her erstwhile BBC colleague Rishi Persad.

He did make his first appearance on Channel 4 Racing, handed the role of asking breathless jockeys how it felt to win (I long for the day when one replies: “the horse is shite and we were lucky to win”).

As a TV producer I’d love to get hold of Rishi and stretch him. Not literally, of course. Numerous women tell me he looks just fine as he is.

I mean give him more to do. Or to see what he does know about racing. I believe he has much more to offer than the BBC ever gave him the chance to prove. I’m convinced he is more than a pretty face, but is too often employed in a very lightweight manner.

Gina Bryce has joined the on-air C4 team and though we saw little of her on the first full day of Saturday racing in 2013, what we saw was good. She was a confident presenter with a pleasant on air manner, asked winning trainers and owners sensible questions and looks to be a good addition to the team.

Having the studio set in front of glass not only ensured that Jim McGrath could leave the thermal underwear back in Yorkshire, it also meant we got to see the horses arriving back after racing behind him and co-presenter Cunningham.

I for one was delighted to see a return to jacket and tie presentation. This is racing, not football. Call me old fashioned by all means (I’d be flattered) but I don’t want my presenters in shirt sleeves, thank you very much. Credibility dictates a smart on air appearance and we got just that.

For many years Jim McGrath had an excellent on air relationship with his friend John Francome and though Graham Cunningham cannot, like Francome, claim to have been a seven times champion jockey, there were enough signs to believe that the new double act could work well.

Jim McGrath knows more about racehorses and their pedigree than the rest of the team put together. His many years of presenting live TV prior to Channel 4 racing means he is a confident and competent front man, though my ears prick up more when he is being asked the questions, rather than when he is asking them.

Proof positive that as viewers we all see things differently came when I read the grumblings of one keen racing viewer on Twitter.

Tania Kindersley noticed something I at first didn’t. She spotted a missing ingredient that is important to those who like to watch racing. Not just punters but those who, for whatever reason, cannot get to live racing but want to see shots of horses in the parade ring.

Where was the paddock preview of the horses? The first time we saw them was down at the start.

In her own blog she says: “There is barely a glimpse of the horses in the paddock. There are hardly any replays of the races. The old, intricate ‘Story of the Race’ appears to have gone. In fact, outside the live races themselves, there is oddly little about the horses on the course.”

Tania is right. We should see the horses in the paddock. Even if, as was the case in the old days, that footage is pre-recorded earlier.

The other Tanya (Stevenson) is best when bouncing off someone else – though not for one moment would I advocate the return of ‘Big Mac’.

Though never the most confident of presenters to camera, Tanya does know her betting and I would find time to employ that knowledge in a way that is more informative to watching punters.

Alice Plunkett is the best of those charged with interviewing tired jockeys as they make their way to the winners’ enclosure. I hope the new mother returns to doing just that very soon.

New era – Clare Balding heads the new-look Channel 4 Racing team 
(Pic: Channel 4)

Nick Luck will double up for presenting the big meetings with Clare Balding. Time will tell how that pairing works but, look on the bright side, Willie Carson did not make the move from the BBC.

My concern is that, at this early stage, the Channel 4 team feels less like a team and more like a collection of individuals.

More Real Madrid than Barcelona. I want Channel 4 Racing to be the team Ditcheat of sports broadcasting.

The job of the producers is make sure the on screen talent knits together and that, to using footballing parlance, they are ‘played to their strengths.’

I suspect that there will be casualties who fall by the wayside before the flat season returns (when we can once again see Emma Spencer in high heels telling a winning jockey that the horse under him is “so strong”).

I know only too well that television and ego are natural bedfellows.

By the time we get to the Cheltenham festival in March, and Ms Balding is in charge of on air presentation, the boys will know their place. There will be more second and third fiddles than you find in the average orchestra.

Some egos will be bruised as supporting cast members feel they are being marginalised.

None of which will be a direct result of anything the saintly Clare says or does.

You see, in television, when an ego is kicked out of bed, sensitivity and a chip on the shoulder are climbing under the duvet.

Putting together a presentation team is no easy task. I know.

Keeping them together, uniting them as a team and driving them on to deliver a better programme than the one that went before is both a big challenge and a thankless task.

As a producer it is much easier to be in charge of a new programme, rather than a reinvented one.

Like the sport of racing itself, the head of sport at Channel 4 and the production company he awarded the contract to, must not be so focussed on attracting the ‘younger customer’ that they drive away the core viewer of racing on terrestrial television.

Now that the BBC has turned its back on the sport, those of us who choose not to watch racing via subscription channels need this new look Channel 4 coverage to succeed.

Its future will not depend on whether or not we can read the blue graphics. Nor on if the presenters wear ties or wet t-shirts.

Advertising revenue will dictate if the deal to televise racing on Channel 4 is extended beyond the current contract.

The advertising department at C4 will be busy chasing companies to sell their wares in the commercial breaks between the races.

For that to happen the channel needs to keep the most important ‘customer’ satisfied. The punters, and those who love to watch racing, and not just the races.

Personally I gave up predicting the future of TV programmes after I, as a member of the production team on the ‘pilot’ of ‘Countdown’ told anyone who would listen “this programme will never run”.

A remark made over thirty years ago. And one those who worked on the show for many decades after never failed to remind me of.

I am just glad that, back in 1982, you couldn’t bet on such things!

Visit Vernon’s sports betting website VG Tips www.vgtips.co.uk

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One Response to SPORTS VIEW: New Channel 4 Racing team more Real Madrid than Barcelona as new show takes first stride

  1. njhag says:

    Excellent blog and one I mostly agree with.
    I still can’t and probably never will comprehend or understand the dispensing of Alaistair Down’s services, come Cheltenham week when they have by far their biggest audience his expertise will be a gaping hole. The features he used to do over 4 days with legends were a real highlight for armchair viewers and will be sorely missed. As much as I rate Clare, I thought Al and Al were a really good double act.

    As for Luck, I hate to be over critical, but I have never been able to take to him, as a working class punter I feel I am constantly being patronised by him and he is always trying to be overly clever.

    I think Big Mac’s time was up, but as you say Tanya needs a sidekick, they could have moved for the fat bookie from the Beeb.

    And to what is Emma Spencer’s purpose?

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