THE televising of British horseracing will undergo a seismic revolution next year after ITV sensationally defeated Channel 4 to become the sport’s new terrestrial partner and the next home of the Grand National, Cheltenham Festival, Derby and Royal Ascot.
Following months of intense negotiations ITV, the Racing Post understands, has secured an exclusive contract after agreeing to pay in the region of £30 million over four years for the right to regain access to a sport it last showcased 31 years ago.
More than three decades of continuous racing coverage on Channel 4 will come to an end when the network televises Newbury’s Challow Hurdle card on December 31. Just 24 hours later ITV is set to make a dramatic return to racing with the New Year’s Day card at Cheltenham, which on Friday opened what will be Channel 4’s final year with the sport.
Flagging viewing figures could be boosted
Since controversially acquiring the BBC’s crown jewels from the start of 2013, Channel 4’s tenure as racing’s sole terrestrial partner has been beset by disastrous ratings for most marquee fixtures. Royal Ascot has lost half its viewers, the Derby’s figure last year plummeted to a record low, and British Champions Day has had its audience collapse from an average of 1.1m in the BBC’s final year to just 367,000 last October.
By severing ties with Channel 4 the sport’s rights holders – led by Racecourse Media Group, Jockey Club Racecourses, Ascot, British Champions Series and Arena Racing Company – will be hoping the transfer of racing’s showpiece events to a more popular mainstream channel will help to regain many of those viewers lost on Channel 4.
However, although the very biggest fixtures will be showcased on ITV’s main channel, it has long been believed the majority of racedays would be shown on ITV4, whose ratings would be expected to prove smaller than those achieved on Channel 4. Indeed, there had been unconfirmed rumours a proportion of ITV4’s output would be largely studio-based.
Details of how ITV will split its coverage between its two platforms – and the total number of days involved – are expected to be announced when the new deal is officially unveiled. Also unclear is whether ITV will produce its own racing programmes or outsource to a production company. However, the broadcaster is already likely to have ideas about who will be its principal presenters, pundits and commentators.