So it’s bring back the ITV 7? Well, racing never had a better idea so it’s not just that I was part of the Saturday showcase during the 70s and 80s that I say why not? Yet beware of old loves – they can look very different 40 years on.
Of course there will be all sorts of talk of what a great job an ITV team will do, and how big an audience it will bring to the major racing days, but don’t doubt that it will be the ITV7, or something very similar, that will be the major pull. For it’s basic format, an accumulator bet on the seven races shown on the channel that afternoon, is the only big bet that has ever fully engaged housewives and once a week punters and professionals alike. It was simple, it was great television and above all it was fun.
Back in the 70s BBC was very po-faced about racing and indeed about all sport, and particularly about betting. While ITV put out betting shows and SP’s at will, BBC were so protective that for a long time the only way you could get the SP was for Peter O’Sullevan to pause his post mortem to allow the viewers to overhear the public address. Contrast that to the ecstasy in 1973 when the ITV7 climaxed in a five way Cambridgeshire photo won by Geoff Lewis on Siciliana at 14-1 landing a single housewife something close to a seven figure sum.
But it was a lot more than a different approach to betting that ITV brought to racing and can bring again. Much as I admired the BBC team as individuals, we were a much more cheerful and irreverent lot. How could we be else when ITV Sport was led by the iconoclastic Jimmy Hill who was in his early 40s, and most of us in World of Sport were in our 30s at most? Today’s Ch4 team have put on some magnificent broadcasts, last year’s Grand National being one of its very best. The performers are extremely knowledgeable and the production capabilities are light years ahead of what happened back then. But, perhaps in an effort to avoid the largely unfair carping at falling viewing figures, there has sometimes been a sense of over studiousness that recalls Julian Wilson in his most pompous headmaster mode.
In the end broadcasting is about trying to engage with the viewer, whoever and wherever they be. By the very nature of its wider remit ITV is both committed and used to playing to the sort of audiences that Channel 4 can never hope to consistently pull. What’s more they can promote their big events across the whole channel and, unlike the old days, they will have no BBC opposition and therefore can shape the very best races to offer.
But today’s broadcasting challenge for the racing game is of a wholly different dimension to the ITV7 era. Back in those pre satellite, pre Sky Sport let alone BT Sport days, racing’s big attraction was often no more than being the only live sport around. Live football was confined to internationals and the FA Cup, rugby to the Five Nations and cricket to home test matches. Back then racing, however presented, was the only sporting bet in town. Now every sport has its betting link and racing looks more inaccessible than ever.
Before anyone thinks all this is a rose tinted hark back to yesteryear, I remember my pride at getting racing’s peak viewing figures one major afternoon while signing off from the last race at Catterick being somewhat deflated when it was pointed out that increase was entirely due to viewers switching on to watch the wrestling up next. And that was both pre-recorded and fixed.
This will be a big change and a big chance. It’s what might be the last major opportunity to have a fresh, realistic and fully informed look at the relationships between the sport and its multiple audiences. This gig will be much, much harder than the first time around. But I wish them well.