New start for The Opening Show

Ahead of the start of ITV's racing coverage on Sunday, Mark Popham talks to Paul Cooper about the new Opening Show programme.

Matt Chapman: Part of the new ITV racing team.

Paul Cooper, deputy racing editor at ITV Sport, will be in charge of The Opening Show, the equivalent of Channel 4's The Morning Line and he spoke to Mark Popham about plans for the programme which will go out for the first time on ITV4 at 1000 on Saturday, January 7, six days after ITV's first live racing broadcast from the Cheltenham on New Year's Day.

One of the most notable decisions already taken by the new ITV racing team is to put the start time for The Opening Show back an hour from The Morning Line's usual 9am kick-off. But a 10am start is something all concerned are evidently happy about.

Cooper, recruited earlier this year from At The Races, declared: "The new time has been well received by the people we have spoken to. Saturday mornings are busy times for people in racing and 10am is a nice start time.

"In the winter, there will be a lot more people at the racecourse at that time, with the first race at noon or shortly afterwards. Second inspections are likely to take place during the programme and we will usually have an hour-long broadcast."

Obviously, a lot of potential viewers will be out and about at that time on Saturday morning, with plenty travelling to the races but ITV is hoping many of them will be still able watch The Opening Show on their mobiles. It will also be available on ITV4+1 at 11am.

Cooper explained about the structure of the new show: "The Opening Show will be a magazine-type programme.

"Its aim is very much to cater for both racing fans and more casual viewers, but we are not trying to dumb it down.

"Oli Bell will be the main presenter on Saturday mornings and will be joined usually by two other people – an ITV expert like Luke Harvey, Mick Fitzgerald, Jason Weaver or Hayley Turner, and then there will be another guest, probably someone from the racing world.

"We have been sounding out guests in advance – jockeys, trainers and owners – and the response has been very encouraging.

"Matt Chapman will be a part of the programme too – bombing around the racecourse from 10am, very similar to what he does on At The Races.

"We are planning 62 programmes in 2017 – 52 Saturdays, along with the four days of the Cheltenham Festival, Thursday and Friday of the Grand National meeting at Aintree and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Royal Ascot. The Cheltenham and the Grand National ones will be an hour and a half – 9.30am until 11am.

"The programme will come live from an ITV-branded set on racecourses – inside in the winter but outside if possible in the summer. All the racecourses have been very accommodating about positions inside and out.

"Nearly all the positions we have signed off so far have a nice backdrop of the racecourse or part of it. We might do one or two from trainer's yards – I thought that worked well latterly for Channel 4."

A fourth person for The Opening Show is possibility from time to time and there will be a racing feature every week – either a focus on connections behind a horse in action or something non-standard.

"Victoria Pendleton has done a series of six behind-the-scenes features which will go into the early weeks of the programme. I found these interesting when filming them and I think my wife will too," said Cooper.

"We are trying to inform both people in racing and those from outside and features like a day in the life of a racehorse should do that."

Cooper is hoping a review of the day's papers, as far as racing goes, and a look at the latest racing news will be a regular part of the Saturday morning programmes.

He concluded: "Not every programme is going to be the same – we want to keep it fresh – it will be more of a magazine show than a preview show, but the whole premise will be to showcase what is on ITV that afternoon.

"Hopefully, people will enjoy The Opening Show and then watch the racing on ITV in the afternoon."

While Matt Chapman is comfortable about his new role in the ITV racing squad rather than taking centre stage, don't expect him to be standing still.

He revealed: "I would like to think that the broadcasting is the easy part – whereas the hierarchy may be worried, it is not something that is worrying me.

"I hope I will have a vaguely developing role at ITV. I will be in betting rings for ITV and will not have the owners, trainers and jockeys to play off but I will have the betting fraternity.

"I want to try and bring some movement to the ring – the one thing that has been very obvious since betting was ever done on TV is that, from John McCririck to Tanya (Stevenson), they are standing pretty still. I will be a bit disappointed if I'm standing still very much – the betting ring is a place of movement.

"I will be pointing out the differences in prices and making sure people understand which is better. I hope to do this in a fairly jolly way!

"The market is probably the biggest clue that you are going to have in finding winners. A high percentage of races are won by the first three in the market so you have immediately narrowed down the field in most cases.

"For me, it is like stocks and shares and I want to engage punters. I want to talk to people – that is what I do.

"I want to simplify betting as much as possible without annoying everyone who knows all about it.

"The Opening Show role will be more like my ATR role where I have a free rein, though I have a relatively small part to play, with probably three appearances of a couple of minutes each.

"I will continue to see what I see and tell it as I see it. Obviously, a terrestrial TV channel has more restrictions on what a presenter is likely to put forward to the public than a dedicated satellite channel for a particular sport so I will try and choose my words carefully without changing my persona."

Oli Bell is to become the regular face of The Opening Show and provide a continuity to the new ITV programme which some felt was missing from The Morning Line.

The youthful Bell commented: "We want to bring in new people to watch The Opening Show and for instance Luke Harvey is doing a series called jargon busting, each about 30 seconds long, which will be part of the process.

"I come from a racing family so the sport is in my blood, but I go to the races as a fan. I want to convey the excitement of forthcoming big races to the viewers.

"We are fundamentally a magazine programme which is there to educate and set up what is coming on ITV Racing in the afternoon.

"There is a lot of nostalgia we can touch on. For me and people of my age who may not understand the historical context of races, there will be ITV archive footage to show.

"Racing is a sport which is brilliant because there are so many stories to be told and so many people to tell them, whether they are a stable lad, an owner, a trainer or a jockey.

"We want to make the show as enjoyable as we can – what ITV offers is a platform to be seen and heard by a lot of people.

"This is a huge job for me and I am aware of the pressure and the responsibility as much as anyone."

Bell's introduction on ITV Racing will be at Musselburgh on New Year's Day afternoon, with races shown from the Scottish course as well as from Cheltenham.

Read More at Sporting Life

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