Channel Four Relishes Grand National Challenge

It seems that Channel Four (C4) executives are relishing the challenge of broadcasting the Grand National. On January 1st C4 will become the sole terrestrial broadcaster of horse racing in the United Kingdom. C4 will be providing coverage from 88 racing fixtures in 2013 including the Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot and the Aintree Grand National.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]I have felt that we could do better and we’ve got the chance to do that now[/quote] Speaking at the ‘Leaders In Racing‘ conference Jamie Aitchison the C4 sports editor “We’re not scared of it (The Grand National) and it has a huge place in the British psyche. In the last few years, I have felt that we could do better and we’ve got the chance to do that now.”

Ever since the BBC announced the end of its association with the Grand National, speculation has been rampant on the ability of C4 to cover the Nations most popular horse race. Many have been predicting the move will signal the end of the public’s love affair with the race. However, it seems that the Grand National’s predicted demise is looking premature in the face of investment made by C4 in British Racing.

The C4 racing team has been revamped and will now be headed up by Claire Balding. Opinion is divided on other members of the team, some seeing the departure of Derek Thompson and Alastair Down as a huge mistake. Nevertheless, C4 should be applauded for taking some bold step towards broadening the appeal of racing, including the rescheduling of all big races on Saturdays to a new time of 3:50pm, a time slot which will allow football fans to watch during the half-time break. However, the start time of the Grand National will be unaffected.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]I’m hugely excited about the future of racing on Channel 4 and greatly look forward to 2013.[/quote] The C4 team will also now have a mobile studio which will travel to major meetings. Technology will also play a bigger role in broadcasts with the addition of touch screen table to highlight stats and recent form. Speaking about the new format Jamie Aitchison (C4 sports editor) said “Sports fans have something to look forward to. Our racing coverage will be insightful, intelligent and ground-breaking.” adding “I’m hugely excited about the future of racing on Channel 4 and greatly look forward to 2013.”

Many of the criticisms and worries about the coverage of the Grand National are similar to those concerns raised when skysports began televising football back in the early 1990s. No one thought it possible that Sky could technically surpass the coverage of football offered by iTV and the Beeb. Not only did Sky match the coverage they took it to the next level – pioneering live 3D games, offering analysis, stats and insights which make current BBC sports coverage look like a Pathé News reel from the 1930s.

It’s worth remembering that C4 already have a great deal of experience in covering racing and this is not a leap into the unknown for them. Their coverage of last years Cheltenham festival was extremely good which is arguably a more challenging task than covering the Grand National.

In fact many people in racing are pleased that the BBC is no longer involved in the sport. In recent years racing fans have expressed concerns that the corporations editorial attitude to horse racing has shifted in focus from balanced reporting of the sport to one that seems excessively interested only when a horse dies during a race.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]Our approach to the Grand National is to tell the truth[/quote]That’s not to say that C4 are going to gloss over the dangers inherent in a race like the National. Speaking recent Jamie Aitchison insisted that Channel 4 “deals with controversy every day, almost courts it” – adding “Our approach to the Grand National is to tell the truth”, a truth that must take into account that fatalities do happen in the Grand National, as they do in all horse races.

However, the race isn’t the bloodbath that animal rights extremists would like portray. Recently the National has suffered a higher than average number of fatalities in recent years. Yet, if we look at the race over a longer period of time the numbers tell a different story. Whilst the animal rights extremists will pluck stats from 2000 – 2010 which show 7 fatalities in the race, Grand National fans will point to the periods 1992 – 1995 and 1960 – 1966 when no horses were fatally injured. One hopes that C4 will provide balance when dealing with the issues of horse welfare and also to highlight the great efforts that all involved in the race have taken to make it safer for jockeys and horses.

It’s also interesting to note that the C4 coverage of the 2013 Grand National will focus more heavily on the importance of telling the stories of the jockeys and trainers. “What has clearly emerged is that you can’t target the horse,” said channel four sports editor Jamie Aitchison “To get it out to public, as much as we all love Frankel, you need to utilise the jockeys and the trainers and tell the stories.” This approach may annoy the sports purist, but it will certainly attract new fans and purists will do well to remember that the sport now has a dedicated free to air TV channel to champion British horse racing – a position that few other sports can boast. You could argue that racing now enjoys a higher profile than Cricket, Rugby and athletics.

One point the critics have highlighted is C4’s lack of audience share to which they can promote the Grand National in the weeks leading up to the race. It’s a legitimate concern but one that’s been overstated. The BBC did promote the National before high profile programmes such as EastEnders and that certainty helped put race on the public’s radar but let’s not forget that C4 has a healthy share of the UK TV audience – in fact it is double the share of all Skysports channels combined. No doubt C4 will be using it’s own high profile shows to ‘pump’ interest in the race so expect to see promos for the National featured before and after programmes like Countdown and C4 News. But one important factor that many naysayers have failed to realised is the reach of C4 online. Over 30 million people visit C4 websites monthly, which can be used to generate a huge amount of free publicity for the race.

Online is certainly an area where the BBC failed to engage with its audience, just take a look at BBC.co.uk You won’t find a link to horse racing on their homepage and you won’t even find a link to it on their sports pages either! Contrast this with the announcement from C4 that ‘the digital propositions for Channel 4’s horseracing coverage formed an important part of the tender process and Channel 4 and IMG Sports Media will relaunch channel4.com/racing and build new presences on other digital platforms.’

If C4 can get their digital offering right then they stand a great chance of expanding the appeal of racing and the Grand National – I for one hope they can pull it off.