Last weekend saw the third and fourth Classics of the British flat season run at Epsom, with both the Oaks and Derby winners making headlines with their successes. But the TV audience was lower - strikingly lower - than for the same pair of races last year, and just half of the figures of a few years ago.
So what has happened to strangle the interest of the British watching public to such a degree and, more materially perhaps, what can be done to revive the dwindling audience?
A spot of context
Let's start with a bit of historical context. The year is 2008, and New Approach wins the Derby for Jim Bolger and 'Mrs Sheikh Mohammed'. BBC TV reports viewing figures of three million, and a spokesperson is quoted as saying, "We are very pleased the figures remained consistent on such a busy weekend of sport."
The figures were in line with the 2007 renewal, when Authorized gave Frankie Dettori his Derby win.
On the Friday of the 2008 Derby Festival, viewing figures for the Oaks and Coronation Cup (which has since moved to Saturday) were 900,000.
In the same year, Channel 4's coverage of the Gold Cup attracted two million viewers, and the BBC's coverage of the Grand National commanded a whopping 10.1 million peak viewers.
Six years have passed since those very strong viewing figures were recorded, and much has changed. The global economic crisis has struck and the ripple effect of its shock waves are still being felt in terms of disposable income and, therefore in available punting pounds.
Competition for that wagering pound is increasingly fierce, with everything from FOBT's in betting shops to virtual racing to saturation coverage of sport across the airwaves, both terrestrial and satellite. And, to that end, the transition from analogue to digital TV has expanded the number of viewing options on the average gogglebox.
In the microcosm of racing's TV coverage, two earthquakes have struck, and they too have generated significant aftershocks. First, BBC Sport limped in to the bidding process to continue to host horse racing, essentially surrendering its right to cover Royal Ascot, the Derby, and other top meetings. Then, upon winning the bidding (phoney) war, Channel 4 announced dramatic changes both behind and in front of the cameras.
That was 2012, and C4 now has two Derby meetings under its belt, as well as continued coverage of the Cheltenham Festival.
At the time of the deal, Richard Fitzgerald, chief exec of Racecourse Media Group, the company that spearheaded C4's bid, was quoted as saying:
"This new deal will not only deliver increased revenues for British racing, but with all of our sport's crown jewels in its portfolio, Channel 4 offers a compelling vision to innovate the way racing is broadcast."
Now, two years on, it is right and proper that those splashing the cash, and expounding grand visions, are held to account against their prophetic (or not) sound bites.
The state of the racing broadcasting nation
As the ink dried on the contract, so the axe swung on the - granted, somewhat legacy - broadcast team which had been in situ on the Channel 4 sofas since day one of its racing coverage. Old school stalwarts such as John McCririck, Derek Thompson, and John Francome were mothballed in favour of fresher-faced frontmen and women. Nick Luck, Rishi Persad, Graham Cunningham, and notably Clare Balding were recruited, along with Mick Fitzgerald.
The proof of the pudding is always in the eating and, having dined on this menu for two years, the British viewing public has considered it less appetizing than its heartier predecessor. At least, that's what the bare figures imply.
Let's look at those figures.
The Derby of this week drew a peak audience of 1.55 million, and the Oaks coverage on Friday was shared with just 558,000 viewers. Those figures are awful. There really is no other way of putting it.
Whilst it's unfair to compare them with the BBC viewing figures of 2008, it's entirely reasonable to compare them directly with the Channel 4 viewing figures of a year ago. Then, the Derby was watched by a peak of nigh on two million, and the Oaks by pushing 800,000.
That represents a year on year drop of almost a quarter for the Derby, and even more than that for the Oaks.
Channel 4's head of sport, Jamie Aitchison, was quoted in The Guardian as saying:
“I’m pleased with the high-quality coverage from the Channel 4 Racing team over two glorious days at the Investec Derby Festival.
“Despite there being live sport across all four main terrestrial channels yesterday afternoon, Australia’s win in the Derby was watched by a bigger peak audience than the French Open Ladies’ Final, the Challenge Cup Rugby and the Formula 1 practice session.”
As head-burying ostriches go, Aitchison has found himself a pretty big sandpit in which to shield his eyes from the (mixed metaphorical) reality of a sinking ship. And, to some observers, it is a sign of the lack of alternative leadership at C4 that there has yet to be whispers of mutiny amongst the ailing crew.
Let's be clear: references to alternative sport don't really wash. Remember that quote from 2008?
"We are very pleased the figures remained consistent on such a busy weekend of sport."
The beeb was able to maintain its viewing figure in the face of sports broadcasting competition.
And, last year, on Derby Day - 1st June - competing sports on TV included French Open tennis, and British Lions vs Barbarians rugby. The fact that Aitchison references the practice session from a Grand Prix implies how far racing has fallen in the public affections. Or has it?
Channel 4's Cheltenham coverage recorded a viewing figure of 1.53 million for the 2014 Gold Cup, a race run on a Friday, as opposed to the Derby on a Saturday. This was actually up marginally on 2013.
And C4's Grand National coverage has plateaued the past two years at over eight million, an impressive figure when compared with Auntie's ten million, given the additional reach BBC1 has over C4 generally.
So what's the difference?
So far all I've achieved is to aggregate a whole bunch of numbers, and try to flag a couple of meaningful historical punctuation marks in racing broadcasting's current chapter.
It's high time we tried to pull all this together, and figure out what's working and what's not working.
Based on the empirical evidence, and on my own (admittedly somewhat myopic) inspection, here are some points to consider...
1. Racing gets its biggest audiences when it touts for them
The viewing figures for the Grand National and Cheltenham have very little to do with production values and the quality of the presenting team, despite what Aitchison would have us believe. Rather, they are a product of the amount of peripheral marketing that goes on around the main events.
The Grand National had a fantastic billboard campaign, some excellent TV ads, and plenty of cross-promotion on more mainstream shows, such as Alan Carr, Chatty Man.
Whatever racing's suits think, this is what works. It brings people to the sport who otherwise would not engage. Channel 4 - and racing as a whole - needs to do more of this. It's not a boy's club any more, it's an ecumenical church (small 'e', small 'c') where every man and woman can have an opinion and put their money where their tweet is.
After all, isn't that the society in which we currently reside? In the land of 'me, me, me', why isn't racing - and Channel 4 Racing - tapping in to that sentiment?
Broaden the appeal with cross-promotion, tout for opinions, and people will engage. It's the most basic marketing message of all time.
2. Shades of grey do not appeal beyond racing's own
The team of presenters on the Channel 4 roster currently almost all share a professionalism that was occasionally lacking in the pre-2012 squad. And, if you're a perfectionist or a racing form enthusiast, you probably value that. (I do). But let's face it, if you're that sort of person, you probably have at least one of the two satellite racing channels.
Channel 4's job, as I've alluded to in point 1 above, is to broaden the appeal of the sport. As the sole terrestrial broadcaster, they have an obligation to hold the torch for British racing.
The presenters have very little chance of broadening the appeal as things stand, in my opinion. They are too similar, too pedagogic, too... aloof, almost.
Here's how I'd shape a team if I was charged with such matters.
Anchor - Amiable, charismatic. The lead presenter needs to be able to take one long arm and embrace both the racing personalities at the heart of the sport, and an audience which drifts far beyond racing aficionados. The ideal for me is a person that might actually keep you watching even if you didn't care two hoots for horses.
Matt Chapman can overcook it on occasion (Frankel's Champions Day 2012, for instance). But there's little doubt he has a personality, a breadth of knowledge, and an easy way with all-comers that is both engaging and entertaining.
Racing broadcasting needs to entertain in the bits between the races, and it's kind of forgotten how to do that to some degree.
Foil - Quirky, occasionally insightful, occasionally irritating. Willie Carson had many detractors when paired with Clare Balding, but there's no doubt they had an on-screen chemistry which is missing from the sterile laboratory environment of the C4 broadcast bus.
They were an OB duo - outside broadcasters, in all weather. Balding has been isolated since her move to C4, and she doesn't operate nearly as well in the sole anchor role. I liked Willie Carson, though I sometimes had enough of him; and I respect Clare Balding, though I don't especially enjoy her presentation work these days.
I often had enough of Big Mac, but he represented a viewing demographic that is no longer represented, and has long since switched off, or over. The two goons who do the betting now are uninteresting, and at least one resource too many, in my view. But they are better than Wiltshire and Parrott who were on the other side, who were in turn far better as bookies and snooker players.
Face facts: the two satellite channels cover betting with a bloke (or lass) in a booth, and a graphic on the screen. It just doesn't need any more than that.
Ex-Pro - It is always insightful to get a view from someone who has done things you never will. I've read form; I've written about racing; I've made bets. But I've never ridden or trained a horse. John Francome has. And he was extremely adept at articulating those ethereal imponderables that go into ensuring a horse is right for the job on the day.
Mick Fitzgerald is, I'm afraid, a pale shadow of Francome, and has none of his wit or charisma. Good horseman though he was, he's not an especially good presenter, and he's been at it a fair few years now.
There are any amount of ex-pro's looking for work. Surely somewhere in their midst is a diamond in the rough. And that's exactly what's needed for this role, which is why Francome excelled in it. His departure - out of loyalty to the former production team - was a shame at the time, and he has been a big miss pretty much ever since.
Punter - Racing is about punting for most people. In my opinion, C4 has done well to understand that and to bring in the likes of Paul Kealy and Tom Segal for The Morning Line. Both are excellent judges and, while the smoke blown up them from Lucky and co is a little misplaced, they are definitely 'value add' for me on the early shift.
Form Boffin - A form boffin, who also likes to bet and doesn't mind sharing as much, is a staple. C4 has two, which is one too many... unless they approach the puzzle from different angles. They don't. Both Jim McGrath and Graham Cunningham are fine judges, and extremely professional presenters. But they are 99.9999% from the same gene pool, and entirely interchangeable to my eye, and ear.
Personally, I'd marginally prefer Cunningham, but there's very little in it, as I've alluded.
3. Let's re-format this disk...
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. We now know that Janus Jamie Aitchison will be crowing in April after the Grand National figures; and crying in June at the Epsom / Royal Ascot numbers.
He, his programmes, and his presenters, are currently products of their environment: so much driftwood at the whim of the wider marketing push. That they are losing their core audience is extremely disconcerting, though, and something that requires a change of format, regardless of the pointless positing about professionalism from Aitchison.
What I'd really like to see is someone - and some time - dedicated to the shape of the race: what it normally takes to win a race like this; how the pace shapes up; the liveliest outsiders (that could turn out to be heroes or, perfectly possibly, zeroes).
Perhaps some - most, in fact - of that could be visualized. We live in a world of infographics, tweets, and status updates. Bite size chunks of data: information plankton for us hungry knowledge-gathering whales.
Attention spans are shortening as a consequence. "Just tell me what's going to win". That's the cowards' way out. The single smartest move I ever made (and, highly likely, ever will make) at geegeez was to 'visualize' races with the Race Analysis Reports.
In that one view, anyone - and I mean anyone, with the possible exception of those who are both short-sighted and colour blind, or just blind (apologies) - can see in an instant which horses are best suited to today's race conditions.
It's a blunt instrument. There's no finesse to it, no inference about horses ahead of the handicapper, whatever. But it's remarkably effective, and can be interpreted in different ways to suit different punters' tastes. And can be colour-decoded by anyone.
Bloke off the street? Instant awareness. He could tell you that Horse A has placed in three of his six runs on this ground, but has a doubt about the distance. And so on. That's real power to the peripheral punters' elbow.
It is e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y simple. And it works. It is a form tool for our time. And it is exactly the sort of thing that takes the dark art of form reading out of the hands of one or two judges and shares the wealth, to some degree at least, with every(wo)man.
That, for me, is the job of the production team at C4. It's time for them to break down the barriers between a newbie and the payout window; to expand the knowledge horizons of the transient viewer; to convert that viewing transience into a more committed tuner-in.
It can be done. It just takes a shift of focus. And a wider marketing push.
4. The Morning Line. 9 o'clock.
Finally, move The Morning Line back to a more sociable hour. I have daddy duties on Saturday morning. I used to have hangovers on Saturday morning. 8am is the graveyard shift, and Channel 4 know it. If Aitchison has any clout, he'd be on to the guv'nors to move that back an hour.
So that's what I think, but what do you reckon? What do you think works, and doesn't work with Channel 4 currently? Who do you like to see/listen to? And who not so much? What would you like to see added to the shows to make them more appealing?