Millington: Key opinions on ITV not held by columnists

Francesca Cumani

Francesca Cumani’s recruitment shows ITV are taking a fresh approach

  PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (  

 By Bruce Millington 11:21AM 21 JUL 2016 

EVERYONE’S got an opinion. What’s yours worth? Apologies for dredging up one of the more annoying slogans from the annals of bookmaker TV advertising, but the line is pertinent to the ITV racing debate that rages with undiminished intensity.

Everyone certainly does have an opinion, even people without televisions it seems, and when it comes to the value of your opinion, the answer is that those with the most prominent platforms from which to air theirs have, paradoxically, the least important views.

My thoughts, for instance, on who should be presenting, what the tone of the output is and whether they should dump the studio that is one of the negatives of Channel 4’s coverage are of considerably less importance than that of the average person for whom the decision to tune in or not is a borderline one.

And that goes for all my fellow columnists and media folk who will be having their say in the run-up to the first ITV broadcast and, with added energy, during the first few weeks of life after C4.

That’s because, while we will shout the loudest, we are not typical of the audience. We are a bit too close to the action, in some cases a bit too snobby about certain aspects of racing on TV.

In recent months I have seen all sorts of doubtless well-meant suggestions on what ITV should do, from personnel to content. Some have made perfect sense while others have been comically stupid and have shown those who have made them to be hopelessly out of touch with what the new broadcaster wants, indeed needs, to achieve.

The executives and managers at ITV who are preparing for the channel’s launch of its racing coverage from the start of 2017 have already expressed their considerable surprise at the huge amount of interest in who they will choose as their presenting team and what their coverage will look like.

And they will read the papers and trawl the obvious websites for anything that gives them a mention. But they will be well aware, because they have a wealth of experience, that the views of columnists are vastly less important than those of the actual target audience.

Key measure of success

Because the size of the audience is how they will be measured. One Channel 4 Racing chief said when they became the sole rights holder of terrestrial racing that they wanted to win awards.

They did, but those awards sparkle less brightly on whichever mantelpiece they sit on these days because the key measure of success, total viewers, did not materialise as anyone at the channel would have hoped.

It is all very well impressing a bunch of executives who judge awards but accolades in metallic form are useless.

Why do you think ITV’s football department used Andy Townsend as their main co-commentator for many years even though smart-arsed journalists used to mock him for the lack of depth to his analysis? It was because they knew the average viewer got exactly the kind of insight they were after from the former midfielder.

In the same way, the racing transmissions will not be designed to earn approving remarks from horsemen and industry insiders when the ITV team turn up at racing functions. They will be designed to attract as big an audience as possible.

Doing it their way

If ITV had listened to the media they would not have gone to the trouble of tempting Ed Chamberlin from Sky or Francesca Cumani from Australia. Time will tell whether those appointments are successful (my money is on a resounding yes), but by choosing that pair rather than the better-established racing broadcasters from these shores most people were touting they have made it clear they are doing it their way and that they believe a fresh approach is the way forward.

Quite what this will mean for the viewer remains to be seen. There is talk that they may devote less time to debates between knowledgeable students of the form book and more to capturing the colour and atmosphere of the occasion.

For some people the idea of less time speculating whether a particular horse can cope with a 6lb rating rise while we see someone like Matt Chapman cavorting around the silver ring asking half-pissed lads and lasses who they fancy will be the stuff of nightmares.

But there will be others for whom a lighter broadcasting style will make them more regular viewers. ITV are not fighting RUK and ATR for audience numbers, so much as the less committed racing fan for whom life under C4 has been just a little too lacking in fun and mischief.

ITV might make a total mess of it, but my opinion is that while they may not gain the approval of a number of purists they know enough about trying to boost audience figures that they will probably get it right.

But then again my opinion counts for little.

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