ITV boss: ‘No knee-jerk reactions’

With only days to go before the start of ITV's racing coverage, our correspondent Mark Popham spoke to controller of sport Mark Demuth about his expectations and plans for the return of racing to the network for the first time since 1985.

Ed Chamberlin, Luke Harvey and Mick Fitzgerald go through a dress rehearsal at Cheltenham racecourse ahead of the launch of ITV's racing coverage.

It's barely a week until ITV Sport takes over from Channel 4 Racing as the terrestrial broadcaster of horseracing in Britain on Sunday, January 1 and there has already been much speculation about what the switchover will mean for viewers.

Channel 4 Racing, managed latterly by IMG, a global leader in sports, events, media and fashion operating in more than 30 countries, has not proved universally popular for its coverage of live racing and The Morning Line programme, yet many still enjoy the coverage on a regular basis and principal presenter Nick Luck has just won the "Broadcaster of the Year" for a record seventh time at the Derby Awards run by the Horserace Writers & Photographers Association.

How much will it be in with in the new and out with the old? Certainly, quite a few presenters and pundits associated with Channel 4 Racing will still appear on ITV1 and ITV4 – the broadcast of racing is being split, with 41 days on the main channel, with another 50+ on ITV4 during 2017.

Mick Fitzgerald, Rishi Persad, Alice Plunkett, Brian Gleeson, Frankie Dettori, Sir A P McCoy and Richard Hoiles (promoted to lead commentator) all continue, while Matt Chapman (appointed as betting expert), Luke Harvey, Jason Weaver and Hayley Turner have been brought in from At The Races and Oli Bell (the regular presenter of the new Saturday morning preview show on ITV4 at 10am) and Mark Johnson (commentator) come from Racing UK.

John McCririck had his Channel 4 Racing work terminated when IMG took over producing Channel 4 Racing at the start of 2013 and subsequently lost a court action based on age discrimination. There is no certainly no age discrimination at ITV Sport as they are bringing back veteran broadcaster and journalist Brough Scott, involved with ITV the last time the channel had a racing contract (in the 1980s) and then for many years lead presenter with Channel 4 Racing. Scott celebrated his 74th birthday earlier this month.

There is a strong injection of female presenters into ITV Racing, headed by Francesca Cumani, daughter of trainer Luca Cumani, who has made her name in Australian TV as an analyst for Channel Seven and also worked for CNN. The former amateur rider will be the co-presenter of ITV Racing during the 2017 Flat season, working for up to 50 days next year.

Sally-Ann Grassick, best known for her work for the French racing Channel, Equidia, will have a reporting role, while ITV weather expert Lucy Verasamy and Olympic cyclist turned amateur rider Victoria Pendleton will also be involved.

The lead presenter is lifelong racing fan Ed Chamberlin, who broadcast for Sky Sports on football for 16 years previously. He has been busy doing his homework since stepping down from Sky Sports in May and getting to know some of those in the sport even better.

ITV Racing will not have mini studios on course like Channel 4 Racing, with the main hub on each raceday being outside by the paddock. The programmes will also focus on live coverage but have plenty of magazine-style inserts to keep viewers glued to their screens.

Mark Demuth, the Controller of Sport at ITV, set out his vision for the broadcasting of horseracing in his first major interview before the channel's initial broadcast, on January 1 at Cheltenham, in a £30-million four-year contract. He and his team are based in the main ITV building on London's South Bank overlooking the river Thames.

He wants the audience for horseracing to increase but said: "We are not going to put figures on it – we are not saying we are going to get that, we are going to get this – we want to boost the profile of the sport and so hopefully over a period of time we can help grow the audience figures, but that is not going to happen on day one or day two.

"We are here for four years – it is a four-year contract – and it would be great if it was for longer than four years.

"We have got a fresh start and we have experts in the sport in Richard (Willoughby – from Racing UK) and Paul (Cooper – from At The Races) editing the main shows – they know racing inside out.

"We have expert talent – they also know the sport inside out – and they are working with a production team which hasn't worked in racing and can provide fresh ideas and ask why aren't we doing it this way?

"So it is a different dynamic, which is both refreshing and challenging. Things don't need to be done the same way they have been for years – we can do different things.

"We (ITV production staff) won't get it right all the time as outsiders and they (Richard & Paul) won't get it right all the time. We had a meeting recently when all the productions teams came together to chat through all the big ITV sports shows – the Six Nations, the high-profile football we do and the racing. We were going over content ideas, special features and seeing how we can merge the two. Now racing is part of that mix.

"We have great opportunities for cross promotion with ITV shows; sports and other ones. This building has Good Morning Breakfast, Lorraine, This Morning and Loose Women – four live shows going out from here every day of the week.

"Around the big racing festivals, all those shows are looking for content and ideas and we can say there is Royal Ascot coming up and do you want to do some fashion inserts. That will create cross promotion. The people who watch This Morning, Lorraine and Loose Women might not be planning to watch the races but could tune in after seeing an item to find out what it is all about.

"We introduced people in this building to horseracing one lunchtime – people from all departments brought their lunch and for an hour were told what our horseracing coverage was going to be about.

"The fundamental thing in the racing programme is be true to the sport and concentrate on journalism and telling a story.

"We will be mindful that there will be newcomers to racing watching, so we don't want to speak in a language that goes over their heads and causes them to turn off because they don't understand what is going on.

"It is not an easy balance but, if we are going to grow the audience, we have got to be mindful of it.

"We have found the racing industry to be very positive and receptive to ITV ever since we won the rights at the beginning of the year. We have been given access to the top trainers and top officials.

"I would not say it is an old-fashioned sport – it is receptive and aware it needs to compete in a modern market place in terms of noise and recognition.

"They have gone for in ITV a company which has a broad reach of audience and they want to put racing in that window. That is why they have come to us and said they are open-minded."

He acknowledged that for Channel 4 to get a peak audience of just over 10 million for the 2016 Grand National was a very good figure, but would not be drawn on the number of extra viewers that ITV wants to attract for the world's most famous jump race, though Aintree is said to be expecting 12 million-plus. He is happy for the iconic race to go off again at the later start time of 5.15pm in 2017.

"When we have done big rugby and football internationals, a start time of 5pm or afterwards works so well. If you are a family, you can go out in the day come home and watch the match and then go out again in the evening if you want to, whereas an 8pm or 9pm start takes in the whole evening," he went on.

"We were the first broadcaster to have the FA Cup Final at 5.15pm and The Jockey Club was quite bold in making the decision to switch and run the Grand National at that time."

Does that mean other big races will be moved to 5.15pm? Not the Investec Derby at Epsom Downs.

Demuth commented: "We are quite happy to keep the Derby where it is – there are reasons why the Derby is at 4.30pm and we know them and we are not going to rock the boat."

The ITV contract is for British racing and no decisions yet have been made about covering overseas racing live, such as the Dubai World Cup, the Arc, the Breeders' Cup and the Melbourne Cup.

The ITV boss explained: "We want to do justice to British racing first and then we will make decisions about overseas racing."

It is a return to broadcasting racing by ITV. The ITV 7 was a well-known brand from 1969 to 1985, with a lot of history to it. There is plenty of archive material, based in Leeds, which will be available to the new ITV Racing team.

Demuth said: "We are going to show some of those great horses and races in The Opening Show (the replacement for the Morning Line which will be broadcast at 10am on Saturdays on ITV4). Everybody loves a bit of archive and that will be a regular feature. This archive has not been seen for years."

If there is criticism over the way ITV is covering racing from the first day at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, what will be the reaction at the broadcaster's headquarters?

Demuth remarked: "Not every single person will like what we do on January 1 – it is a live broadcast and it is impossible to have 100 per cent approval – we know that.

"If we get to week 10 and have universal brickbats that we are not doing something right, we would be blind and stupid not to listen but equally we will not do knee-jerk changes to our plans and style because a few people, columnists or high-profile individuals do not like what we are doing.

"We are not arrogant, but we will not be knee-jerk. We have plans in place put together by experts in horseracing who know the sport – very good people – and we have a very good production team working alongside them. We are not going to change tack on January 2 and come back on Saturday, January 7 with a completely different programme."

The actual race coverage is hard to improve on, explained Demuth: "Channel 4 has done a great job with the race coverage itself and previously the BBC and ITV. We are not going to say that for the last 50 years, the wrong camera angles have been used. The race cameras will be in similar positions.

"What we can add to is the bits in between the races. Racing is unique – football and rugby have a 15-minute build-up to the games, a 15-minute halftime and 30 minutes after fulltime.

"Racing will have a three-hour programme and there might be five or six races and the total time they occupy could be less than 12 minutes. The rest of the time, you are filling with content.

"It is the bits in between that you make the impact by engaging and informing the audience. We will tell the story – journalism is first and foremost what we are going to do. The personalities of the presenters give you engagement – good broadcasters have presence."

The viewers will give their verdict in the New Year.

Race meetings to be shown live on ITV1 (main channel) in 2017:

January

Sun 1 – Cheltenham and Musselburgh

March

Tue 14 – Cheltenham Festival

Wed 15 – Cheltenham Festival

Thu 16 – Cheltenham Festival

Fri 17 – Cheltenham Festival

April

Thu 6 – Aintree Grand National Meeting

Fri 7 – Aintree Grand National Meeting

Sat 8 – Aintree Grand National Meeting

Sat 22 – Ayr & Newbury (Scottish Grand National)

Sat 29 – Sandown and Haydock (jumps finale)

May

Sat 6 – Newmarket and Goodwood (2000 Guineas)

Sun 7 – Newmarket and Hamilton (1000 Guineas)

Sat 20 – Newbury and Newmarket (Lockinge)

June

Fri 2 – Epsom Derby Meeting

Sat 3 – Epsom Derby Meeting

Tue 20 – Royal Ascot

Wed 21 – Royal Ascot

Thu 22 – Royal Ascot

Fri 23 – Royal Ascot

Sat 24 – Royal Ascot

July

Sat 1 – Newcastle and Newmarket (Northumberland Plate)

Sat 8 – Sandown and Haydock (Eclipse)

Sat 15 – 'Super Saturday' (Newmarket, Ascot, York)

Sat 29 – Ascot and York (King George)

August

Tue 1 – Glorious Goodwood

Wed 2 – Glorious Goodwood

Thu 3 – Glorious Goodwood

Fri 4 – Glorious Goodwood

Sat 5 – Glorious Goodwood

Wed 23 – York Ebor

Thu 24 – York Ebor

Fri 25 – York Ebor

Sat 26 – York Ebor

September

Sat 9 – Haydock, Ascot and Kempton (Sprint Cup)

Sat 16 – Doncaster and Chester (St Leger)

October

Sat 14 – Newmarket and York (Dewhurst)

Sat 21 – Ascot (British Champions Day)

November

Sat 18 – Cheltenham and Lingfield (Open Meeting Day 2)

Sat 25 – Haydock and Ascot (Betfair Chase)

December

Sat 2 – Newbury and Newcastle (Hennessy/Fighting Fifth)

Tue 26 – Kempton and Wetherby (King George)

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