Continuity and change were the two watchwords towering over yesterday’s announcement that IMG had been awarded the contract to produce television coverage of racing from the start of next year. By then, BBC will have shown its final race, scheduled to be the Welsh Grand National, and the curtain will have come down on the current Channel 4 contract with Highflyer with Kempton’s King George.
The change comes about not simply in a new contract and a new production company, but that in IMG, Channel 4 has chosen an organisation with no previous experience in broadcasting horseracing. Speaking about the decision, Jamie Aitchison, Channel 4's sports editor, said: "After a rigorous and invaluable tender process, I am looking forward immensely to working with IMG Sports Media to deliver our vision for the sport. Their pitch was compelling and crucially contained deep racing expertise allied to innovative broadcasting proposals. The winning bid hails the arrival of a new era in broadcasting for the sport at a time when the industry is moving forwards with real momentum. The hard work starts now as we head towards 2013 and the exciting challenges ahead.”
The other significant change is that Channel 4 will have exclusive rights to broadcasting racing on the terrestrial channels. It takes over The Grand National, the Derby and Royal Ascot, though the first big test of the new approach will come with Cheltenham, just 11 weeks into the contract.
We’ve yet to learn the detail of what was in IMG’s presentation, but one aspect that is clear is that they want to feature more detailed profiles of horses, riders and trainers, and not simply focus on the actual races.
Their ability to bring some highly experienced names from both sides of the camera from the BBC can’t have done them any harm at all either. It seems that all five companies bidding for the contract had listed Clare Balding as their lead presenter, so that in itself won’t have been a factor in the final decision. But it is good news for viewers. If there were an award for Sports Presenter of the Year she would be a shorter price than Frankel to win.
Continuity then in so far as the outstanding communicator about the sport will continue to front it up. Balding said, “I am absolutely thrilled that Channel 4 has asked me to be part of its new racing team. Racing is my ‘home’ sport and I am delighted that I will stay part of its coverage on TV.”
Her reference to a home sport is a reflection of just how widespread her portfolio has become over recent years, and there’s continuity for her, too. Balding is a freelance worker, and so she will be able to continue working for the BBC and other organisations on any other sports and events. She’s already a certainty for the next two Olympics, and it’s these that mark her change over to Channel 4. Balding has just completed an outstanding fortnight providing much of the anchor role for BBC’s Olympic coverage, and carries out the same function for Channel 4 in their coverage of the Paralympics later this month.
Aitchison was gushing at the prospect of Balding’s arrival. He said, “Clare’s arrival is superb news for Channel 4 and the production team. Quite simply she is the best sports broadcaster of her era and for her to be heading up our coverage across the year is extremely exciting.”
Also bridging the divide of continuity (in production) and change (in employer) is Carl Hicks. Although his name is unfamiliar, it was probably his signature for IMG that helped overturn the two established production companies, Sunset + Vine (BBC) and Highflyer (Channel 4). Hicks is currently BBC Senior sport editor, and will leave them on a high after his work on the Olympics. His racing background is strong, as he has edited coverage of the National, Derby and Royal Ascot many times.
There was more good news for the broadcaster yesterday with the announcement that Dubai Holdings had agreed a four-year extension to its sponsorship of Channel 4 Racing, taking it through to 2016. John Ferguson, speaking for the Sheikh Mohammed and Dubai Holdings said, His Highness Sheik Mohammed has supported British horseracing for many years and has always felt that strong terrestrial television coverage is crucial to the sport’s popularity in the UK. As Channel 4 becomes the home of all racing for the British public, His Highness has made the decision that Dubai will continue to be the broadcast sponsor for the period 2013 to 2016. Since 2008, when the sponsorship started, we have seen a growth in viewer ship and we look forward to the future.”
What does all this mean for the current team of presenters on Channel 4 racing? It’s perhaps in this area where the change in production team will be most immediately obvious. John Francome is one who places great emphasis on loyalty and has already said he will not be part of the new team. He’s only had two jobs all his life, starting with 15 years as jockey for Fred Winter. Since he hung up his boots he’s spent over 25 years working alongside Andrew Franklin, now executive producer for the outgoing company, Highflyer.
Francome said, “It’s disappointing. Andrew has made a programme on the back of which racing has made the decision to hand over exclusive rights to Channel 4 and he doesn’t get the chance to produce the likes of Royal Ascot and the Grand National. It’ will leave me riding out second lot for Clive Cox.”
Alastair Down also sounded as though he thought he was on the way out, as he paid tribute to Franklin’s work, whilst recognising it might be time for some fresh ideas and brains to come in.
Here’s the current list of presenters.
Who would you like to see retained? Who do you think should be for the chop?