ITV revolution under orders to put racing in the spotlight
Channel has promised to draw in a bigger audience when it takes over sport’s coverage from today
Anew dawn for horse racing: coverage has moved from Channel 4 to ITV, and the action begins today at 1pm, live from Cheltenham. Host Ed Chamberlin, late of Sky Sports football, and commentator Richard Hoiles spoke to The Sunday Telegraph as the channel begins its mission to make good on promises to the British Horseracing Authority: ITV has vowed to get more people watching and so expand the sport’s reach.
The price for the TV rights is said to be £30 million over four years and, with viewing figures of late being less Gold Cup and more selling plate at Lingfield on a wet Tuesday, the BHA is in bad need of bums on sofas. Will ITV be the Messiah, though, or a very naughty boy?
The thinking behind the channel switch is simple. Even in this age of multi-channels, tablets, mobiles, i-This, i-That and watching Latvian division two football on a HD toaster while up a mountain, a large number of Brits remain more likely to watch something if it is on ITV than on Channel 4. We are not a sophisticated people, but we know what we like. It would be premature to say that racing has gone mainstream, but ITV gives the sport at least a chance to do that.
This is a big opportunity, but it is also a challenge. Sports fans can be a conservative bunch, and racing fans do not want their viewing experience dumbed down. There is reason for optimism that the right balance can be struck, not least due to Chamberlin, who is an unflappable front man with a genuine depth of knowledge.
“I am incredibly excited, because this is my dream job,” he said. “I have dreamed of doing this since I was a kid, when I used to watch ITV Racing with my grandfather. I lived near Wincanton and it was ITV that got me into racing. Later, I was on the BHB graduate scheme, and I wanted to do racecourse management, but I went to work for Ladbrokes instead.”
Younger readers may not recall, but this is in fact the second coming of racing to ITV: Chamberlin is referring to the ‘ITV Seven’ racing era in which the gee-gees were covered as part of ITV’s Dicky Davies sport flagship World Of Sport. That ran until 1984, when Channel 4 took the reins.
“My favourite horses were those huge chasers that Captain Forster used to have, big strapping chasers like Martha’s Son and Dublin Flyer,” said Chamberlin.
Hoiles, who talks as passionately and excitedly as a man who makes a living calling out the hurly-burly of live racing ought to, cuts in. “I loved those horses, too,” he said. “I wrote a letter as a teenager to Captain Forster about how much I loved Pegwell Bay and he sent me one of the horse’s plates. It hangs above my door. Well it could have been any horse’s, he might have just nicked it. But I have providence!”
If Chamberlin has taken the long way round to his first love, having been a bookie and a presenter of the acclaimed Monday Night Football on Sky, then Hoiles radiates the enthusiasm for his work of a man who dodged a bullet with his first career: he used to be an accountant.
“I answered an advert out of the old Sporting Life to be a commentator. I had never done it before, I didn’t know you had to send in a demo tape. My rejection letter back crossed with my demo tape. Fortunately, they gave me a chance. That was in 1992 and I have gradually been progressing through racing’s commentary ranks.”
This spring, he will become the fourth man to call the finish of the Grand National on terrestrial TV, after Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Jim McGrath and Simon Holt. Holt is one of those from Channel 4 who has not made it into the handicap, with Nick Luck, Graham Cunningham, and betting expert Tanya Stevenson among the C4 team who have not been signed up. However, there are plenty of familiar faces, and ITV has also ported over the idea of an early magazine/preview programme: The Opening Show.
To go with the enthusiasm and broadcasting experience of Chamberlin and Hoiles is a battery of heavyweights, including Sir Tony McCoy and Mick Fitzgerald, as well as Victoria Pendleton, who continues her horse-racing journey of discovery with features about her burgeoning career as a jockey. Chamberlin knows that there is a line to walk for the new coverage. “It’s the nature of ITV on a