BUTTON THAT PUSHED TV CHANNEL TO THE BRINK

7 March 2004

Two Johnsons and a Festival, or should it be two lunches and a funeral? Cheltenham and all its glory may be just nine days away, but a week later racing faces a TV crisis little short of meltdown.

The riddles are not hard to solve. Monday’s lunch involved the Richard Johnson who is not a jockey, the the chief executive of Racecourse Holdings Trust, owners of Cheltenham, Aintree and Epsom among others, the biggest players among the racetracks. With Richard was David James, his ultra-numerate chairman, who can count salvaging the Millennium Dome among his business challenges. The imminent collapse of the £307 million Attheraces TV deal – the satellite channel are due off the air at the end of the month – and with it the threat to wider racing coverage on Channel 4, meant this was to be a meal in anything but festive mode.

Two days later, the second Johnson, leading owner David Johnson, was breaking bread at an annual pre-Cheltenham feast from which he and I cravenly withdrew at 4.15pm while the rest of the guests readied for another circuit. This Johnson is captivating company, the East Ender who started out as a £4-a-week bank cashier and two years ago sold his finance company for £216 million yet can no more resist getting involved in business again than he can talking about the likes of Old Vic and Therealbandit at Cheltenham.

“I like a challenge,” he says before revealing that he had just bet what for most of us would be a terrifying sum on Newcastle at 2-9 for that night’s UEFA Cup tie. “Racing gives a buzz,” he adds. “We all have our opinions. Mine are that Old Vic should be a good thing in the SunAlliance and that Therealbandit should take his chance against Best Mate in the Gold Cup. McCoy says he now jumps all right and you should never stay away for just one horse.”

At 58, Johnson is bright and quick and decisive, adjectives which equally apply to J P McManus, Robert Ogden and Trevor Hemmings, the next three owners in the jumping table. With millionaires like these making huge investments with no chance of capital return, the game is in better shape than ever. Or is it?

For the shadow of the first lunch hung over the second. The likes of David Johnson cannot comprehend why the now well-developed and seemingly successful (audience figures of more than 100,000) satellite channel should be unable to fund themselves. “I think they do a great job,” he says. “We used to pay for the Racing Channel and this is terrific value as just part of the Sky package. Perhaps we could pay a bit again.”

Looking back now it is scarcely credible. Less than three years ago, amid fevered expectations of a worldwide, interactive, “press the red button” betting bonanza, a deal was done whereby racing would receive £307 million for a 10-year deal for satellite and terrestrial TV rights, the money to come from investors in the consortium of Arena, Sky and Channel 4. The business prediction was that within a decade interactive betting would have 20 per cent of the market. But in Britain punters were already well served by phone and internet providers.

“I think that when the deal was done,” said the racecourses’ Richard Johnson carefully, “it was when there was great excitement about interactive but not much knowledge. Now there is knowledge the issues are much more practical and there is not much room nor more time for brinkmanship.”

By the end of the week he was talking more optimistically about “constructive discussions”, other sources were suggesting a three-month extension for BBC and Channel 4, the terrestrial broadcasters. But, as of the moment, Attheraces are off the air on April 1. The 70-odd staff have already been given notice. To them it seems no April fool joke.

To ensure a realistic future and continued TV coverage, it will be necessary to be more realistic than in the past. I speak, God help me, with more than 30 years of front-line TV experience here and abroad, and it never ceases to amaze me how much we in Britain take our coverage for granted.

Two weeks ago in Auckland, Richard Johnson’s New Zealand equivalent was explaining the success of their Christmas Derby meeting at Ellerslie. They had paid NZ TV to screen it. In the office a TV monitor showed Trackside, New Zealand’s version of Attheraces. They are financed by the New Zealand Tote, just as France’s Equidia channel are by the Pari Mutuel.

Of course, those other territories have Tote monopolies. Anything that encourages betting is geared directly to them. But we cannot try to un-invent the likes of William Hill, who last week posted a £152 million profit from betting shops alone. In the Attheraces operation and their links with terrestrial television, racing now has a fine specialist service. Channel 4, who have made a huge success of interactive technology with their Big Brother series, might yet help develop an effective `red button’ system. More likely some link up with the betting exchanges might provide a revenue stream.

Meanwhile, David Johnson, the owner, has flown east to watch Tiger Woods in Dubai. When he returns he will be readying for Cheltenham and it would seem that little Stormez, switched back to hurdles for the Pertemps Final, will be among his calculations. After last week, you wonder if racing’s wider game should not to be too.

Nicky Henderson’s monopoly on the major Saturday races continued yesterday when Isio stayed on resolutely under Barry Geraghty, deputising for the injured Mick Fitzgerald, to take the inaugural running of the £100,000 Vodafone Gold Cup at Newbury.

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