Three National Hunt races were broadcast on television in 1948, and within a short space of time there was regular coverage from Kempton Park and Ascot. After years of negotiation the Grand National was televised in 1960, with the original commentators being Peter O’Sullevan, Clive Graham and Peter Bromley. The programme was presented by Cliff Michelmore who stepped in at the last minute for David Coleman, who was suffering from appendicitis.
Coverage became better in 1969 when the National was televised in colour for the first time. The only thing to go wrong was when O’Hehir made a rare error by calling the winner Highland Wedding as a faller. He moved to BBC Radio after that and commentated on a further 16 Nationals before his son Tony took over, doing 12 National commentaries before moving into television.
There was a slump in the National viewing figures in 1995 with only 11.9 million tuning in, and this decreased even further the following year. This was a cause for concern as prior to 1995 approximately 16 million tuned in a year. Strangely in 1997 viewing figures took a massive increase when the National was rescheduled for the Monday following the IRA bomb threats, with a total of 15.1 million tuning in, in what was to become the most watched sports event on TV that year.
1998 was the first year that they attached mini-cameras to three jockeys helmets in three of the races giving a unique view of the Aintree racecourse. The three races were John Hughes Memorial Trophy, The Martell Fox Hunters’ Chase and the Grand National. After the races the footage was put together for use in a mobile simulator, the Morphis MovieRide Theatre, which is now a permanent attraction in the Aintree Visitors Centre, and aims to give participants the jockey experience without having to sit upon a horse.
In 1999 viewer numbers dipped once again with only 10.1 million viewers, even though the coverage was better than it ever had been, with a record number of 45 cameras now being used as opposed to the 16 that were used when the race was first broadcast in 1960. By 2000 viewing figures had dropped even further to 8.9 million, for which the fine weather was blamed, but still more people watched the Grand National than did Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Golf Open.
2001 saw the National televised to 148 countries around the world, and for the first time China had live coverage, thereby increasing the potential TV audience to 650 million. The advent of the internet also meant that the great race could be watched online. Unfortunately this year there were technical problems which left John Hamner having to commentate on 24 of the 30 fences as opposed to his intended 12. By 2003 there were only 7.8 million viewers in the UK but more than 600 million tuned in globally. By 2005 there were almost 2 million viewers in the UK, which was 2 million more viewers than the preceding televisual attraction – the wedding of Charles and Camilla.