By Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland
After 32 years of broadcasting horse racing, Channel 4 will hand over the reins to ITV.
On 27 December 2016, the Welsh Grand National from Chepstow will be the broadcaster’s last coverage of horse racing until 2021, at the earliest. As ITV is taking over on the 1 January 2017, it was decided that Channel 4 would cease broadcasting racing fixtures four days earlier due to “logistical problems” (Bruce Jackson, “Channel 4 coverage to finish four days early”, Racing Post, 4 Dec. 2016, http://www.racingpost.com/news/horse-racing/channel-4-racing-coverage-to-finish-on-welsh-national-day/2204273/#newsArchiveTabs=newsArchiveTab). As a third party owns the equipment needed for outside broadcasting, it will be taken away on the 27 December, 2016 to Cheltenham where ITV will take charge of the equipment in time for the New Year’s Day event at Cheltenham (Chris Cook, “Channel 4’s early racing exit means landmark terrestrial TV blackout”, The Guardian, 2 Dec. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/dec/02/channel-4-early-exit-landmark-saturday-horse-racing-terrestrial-tv-blackout). It is also claimed that key production staff will be unavailable after 27 December (Cook, ibid.). For the first time in years, no horse racing will be broadcast on New Year’s Eve, thus the Challow Hurdle at Newbury will not be televised.
On 1 January 2016, ITV won the tender to broadcast British horse racing on ‘free-to-air’ television in a deal reported to be worth £30 million (Frank Keogh, “ITV to replace Channel 4 as horse racing broadcaster from 2017”, BBC Sport, 2 Jan. 2016, http://www.bbc.com/sport/horse-racing/35213104). Channel 4 added to its portfolio in 2013 the “crown jewels” of racing, the Grand National at Aintree; Epsom’s Derby; and Ascot, which it took away from BBC (Keogh, ibid.).
British racing stakeholders, including Racecourse Media Group (RMG, an umbrella organisation for 34 racecourses-http://www.racecoursemediagroup.com/about-us/), who spearheaded the negotiations, concluded a four-year contract with ITV, which is due to end on 31 December 2020. Channel 4 and Sky Sports failed in their endeavours to win the rights.
ITV will broadcast up to one hundred days of racing each year, including “the Cheltenham Festival, the Crabbie’s Grand National Meeting from Aintree, the Investec Derby Festival from Epsom Downs, Royal Ascot and QIPCO British Champions Day from Ascot, Qatar Goodwood Festival, Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival from York and the Ladbrokes St Leger from Doncaster” (ITV Press Centre, “British horseracing announces exclusive domestic TV rights deal with ITV”, ITV.com, 2 Jan. 2016, http://www.itv.com/presscentre/press-releases/british-horseracing-announces-exclusive-domestic-tv-rights-deal-itv ).
Horse racing fans are in the enviable position as no other sport will be broadcast on live ‘free-to-air’ to such an extent (ITV Press Centre, ibid.). ITV will broadcast 41 fixtures, while ITV 4 will transmit 60 fixtures. ITV 4 will also broadcast a preview magazine show on a Saturday morning (ITV Press Centre, ibid.). ITV 4 will broadcast the Craven Meeting at Newmarket in April 2017, which was previously not available on ‘free-to-air’ television (ITV Report, “ITV Racing to show Grand National, Derby and Cheltenham Festival live in 2017”, ITV.com, 18 Nov. 2016, http://www.itv.com/news/2016-11-18/itv-racing-to-show-grand-national-derby-and-cheltenham-festival-live-in-2017/).
As part of its promotional activities, ITV is seeking to attract a wider audience and is advertising the new home of British racing on programmes including This Morning and Loose Women (Bill Barber, ITV to seek viewers with help of Loose Women, Racing Post, 18 Nov. 2016, http://www.racingpost.com/news/horse-racing/itv-to-seek-viewers-with-help-of-loose-women/2195556/#newsArchiveTabs=last7DaysNews).
William Hill, in a deal purported to be worth £10 million, has acquired sponsor rights. Dubai, which currently sponsors racing on Channel 4, decided not to continue its sponsorship after eight years of supporting British racing (Stuart Riley, “ITV’s racing coverage
to be sponsored by Hills”, Racing Post, 8 Nov. 2016, http://www.racingpost.com/news/horse-racing/itvs-racing-coverage-to-be-sponsored-by-william-hill/2189622/#newsArchiveTabs=last7DaysNews). Dubai has been the sponsor of Channel 4 racing since 2008 and came to Channel 4’s rescue in 2007, by sponsoring 80 days of racing in 2008 and 2009. Dubai is almost wholly owned by Sheikh Mohammed (Greg Wood, “Sheikh steps in to save racing on Channel 4”, The Guardian, 21 Sept. 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2007/sep/21/horseracing.sport1).
It has been speculated that Channel 4 lost the broadcasting rights, due to a marked decrease in its viewership. In the last couple of years, the racing audience on Channel 4 had fallen by 25%, with the exception of the Grand National which held its ground (Chris Sale, “Two-horse battle for racing rights as ITV Sport rival Channel 4 for marquee meetings”, Daily Mail, 7 Dec. 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/racing/article-3350052/Two-horse-battle-racing-rights-ITV-Sport-rival-Channel-4-marquee meetings.html#ixzz4RzgBNuS1).
ITV 4 predicts that initially viewership will be below that of Channel 4. When the BBC had the broadcasting rights to the QIPCO British Champions Day (http://britishchampionsseries.com/qipco-british-champions-day/), the flat racing finale of the season, which takes place at Ascot every October, it had 1.1 million viewers in its final year (October 2012). In October 2015, Channel 4 recorded a viewership of 367,000 (Jon Lee, “Viewing figures potential drove new ITV deal”, Racing Post, 2 Jan, 2016, http://www.racingpost.com/news/horse-racing/racecourse-media-group-channel-4-viewing-figures-potential-drove-new-itv-deal/2013083/#newsArchiveTabs=last7DaysNews).
ITV was in a good position financially as it lost the rights to the Champions League, which meant it could offer twice that (i.e. £15 million) of the deal concluded between Channel 4 and racing stakeholders in 2012 (Sale, ibid.). In addition, ITV has the broadcasting rights of a number of sports, including the Tour de France (with British Eurosport until 2019); RBS Six Nations (all live matches and highlights with the BBC from 2016-2021); and FIFA World Cup matches (all live matches with the BBC from 2018-2022). ITV has become a formidable force in the world of sports’ broadcasting. With high calibre events such as those above, it has gained gravitas which, no doubt, helped in the tender process.
ITV has been heralded as revitalising British horseracing by recruiting commentators, including Olympian Victoria Pendleton and jockey Frankie Dettori, in addition to Richard Hoiles as the lead commentator and Oli Bell as the Saturday magazine show host (ITV Report, “ITV announce full racing line-up ahead of 2017 coverage”, ITV.com, 16 Oct. 2016, http://www.itv.com/news/2016-10-16/itv-announce-full-racing-line-up-ahead-of-2017-coverage/).
However, print media journalists, from 1 January, 2017, will be banned from appearing in camera shots in the winner’s enclosure. The Racecourse Association made the following statement:
“In the immediate post-race scenario, ITV want a clean shot of any connections being interviewed, specifically not including journalists putting microphones in shot, nor standing in shot during such interviews” (cited by Chris Corrigan, “Print journalists to be banished from shot when ITV takes over racing coverage from Channel 4”, Press Gazette, 2 Dec. 2016, http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/print-journalists-to-be-banished-from-shot-when-itv-takes-over-racing-coverage-from-channel-4/). Channel 4 had been more accommodating to journalists. In an attempt to diffuse the situation, ITV has assured journalists that they will receive prompt transcripts of the television interviews, however, as many races take place on a Saturday afternoon, journalists are under increasing pressure to meet deadlines (Corrigan, ibid.).
The day after Boxing Day, 27 December, 2016, will see the end of Channel 4’s thirty-two years’ association with British racing. For the foreseeable future, ITV will broadcast racing on ‘free-to-air’ television. It remains to be seen if the new line up of commentators will attract more viewers and if the promotional advertisements used in predominantly female focused programmes, such as This Morning and Loose Women, will result in a wider audience.