The TV landscape has changed and we’re now well within the first week of these new times.
Racing UK has taken over the rights to show Irish racing (as well as Chelmsford), while At The Races, the long-standing television partner of Irish racing, is gone from the scene there – they’ve bagged themselves the prestigious courses of Ascot and Chester in turn.
There is a rich history of why the rights have moved in first place – you can dig into all the wonderful details here.
I’m more interested in how this first week went and what it means or doesn’t mean for the future of racing.
From all what I could gather up until this Saturday it was a pretty unspectacular change. The horses still ran at Fairyhouse, Tramore and Dundalk – in fact the evening coverage of the County Louth track on Friday was fairly good with the likes of Gary O’Brien and Kevin O’Ryan providing insightful thoughts and analysis.
Today, the first Saturday of the new year, I had the chance to watch the now re-branded Racing TV throughout a complete day – a busy enough day, where they showed live racing from Kempton, Sandown, Wincanton and Cork.
Apparently there was a bit of moaning going on after Racing TV’s New Year’s Day coverage, which was equally a busy day, where it all was put to the test for the first time. And I can see why, as today was probably not a different experience to the one RTV viewers were treated to last Tuesday.
It was race after race after race. Bang, bang, bang. A little bit of analysis squeezed in before and after some of the races, mainly around Sandown, to a lesser extend Wincanton, where commendable Lydia Hislop did her magic with the little time she had – as she usually does!
In truth, this sort of experience isn’t anything new, compared to the busy days on the flat throughout the summer. What is different now: Irish racing. It has to be squeezed in as well.
And that is a bit of a problem. Simply because there was little to no time to squeeze any sort of meaningful analysis of the Cork races in. Certainly not before their respective off. At least afterwards we got to enjoy a few words from the guys in the studio.
But what can you really analyse if you’ve got the maximum lengths of four of five sentences to say before it’s off to somewhere else, because the next race is waiting in line?
It’s a tough spot for RTV on days like this, so I wouldn’t knock them for the coverage. They tried their absolute best. Ultimately we were able to watch all the races. At least that!
In saying that: you do not need a proper TV channel (an expensive pay-TV one that is) for a glorified live stream of all the races. The expectations on a TV channel, particularly a specialist channel like Racing TV, is one that does provide expert commentary, meaningful insights and proper analysis to all the races it shows.
I wouldn’t say that’s always what you got on At The Races in the past. But of course Irish racing was a premium product for ATR, so they gave it ample airtime – even during the busier days.
This is where Irish racing and Irish racing fans do miss out, if the setup remains as it is right now: i.e. all on one channel. I don’t think as negatively about the fact that RTV is behind a paywall, though – I did so in the past; not anymore.
Yes, ATR is much easier accessible as it comes with your standard TV bundle in most cases. But that doesn’t mean its audience figures are anything to shout about.
Anywhere between an average of 40-70.000 people turn in for ATR’s most viewed weekly shows with a paltry average viewing time of 1 minute (weekly, per person) according to BARB figures. Racing UK in contrast has about 50.000 subscribers.
So the notion that there’ll be much less eye-balls on the Irish product may not be totally wrong, but is probably exaggerated at the same time.
Least we forget that, at least in Ireland, the biggest race days and Festivals are shown on RTE. That’s not to say the “accessibility” issue is a non-issue. It’s real and in truth makes it more difficult for someone to discover racing zapping through the channels.
I would argue the problems of the sport of horse racing in general and Irish racing in particular are bigger than that, though. Because in earnest, those who already have an interested in the sport will find a way to watch the races regardless. Either subscribing to RTV, or by watching the ‘free streams” bookies offer if you have a bet in a race.
In fact, I have a few friends who live outside of the UK and Ireland and therefore have zero access to either channel on TV. Guess what? They still find ways to watch the races they care about as well as ATR and RUK. It’s not that difficult if you want it.
In my view the currently (still) ongoing discussion doesn’t tackle the real problems at all. The situation with the TV channels appears to be simply a ‘nice’ distraction. Something to talk about that anyone can have an opinion on even though in reality it isn’t really changing all that much that radically and certainly won’t impact the sport in such a negative way as some commentators want to make us belief.
There are issues, though, that do have a very real impact on the sport in the long run:
race day experience for race goers and owners or the changing public perception against racing horses – accompanied by a lack of public knowledge/education on things like the whip – which is directly in line with the most fundamental questions:
How to attract a younger audience?
How to create a steady flow of (new) racing fans moving forward?
How to create a better betting product?
Which in turn is also about this point: the availability of more data for punters and racing fans. Sectional times, as one example.
These are real issues. Or at least question marks. The problem of the future isn’t whether Barry in Newbridge can watch the 6.45 from Dundalk on his TV for ‘free’. Because he’s watching it on his mobile in the DART on his commute home anyway.
Now, coming back to Irish racing on Racing TV – I actually do trust RTV to figure out how to give Irish racing proper airtime, even on busier days. Maybe a second channel? Potentially a digital one?
Who knows. Times are changing. TV isn’t everything these days. Sport goes digital as well. In a few years, Terrestrial TV won’t have anywhere near the importance it still has at this moment in time.
One thing that Racing TV and all the relevant stakeholders involved have been rightly criticized for this week: the replay shambles!
Come on, you guys had months and months time to sort this out! It shows a general disregard for racing fans. The fact historic (prior to 1st January 2019) replays of Irish racing + Chelmsford are gone right now is not acceptable in this day and age. In any other industry heads would roll for this type of stuff.
At least, so it seems, light is at the end of the tunnel and a temporarily solution has been found.
With that, I am moving downstairs again to enjoy the rest of the Kempton card. A rather sedated experience with only one race every half an hour to prepare for, compared to the frantic pace of the early Saturday afternoon.