Questions set to grow over audience sizes as ITV viewing figures are revealed
Lee Mottershead takes an in-depth look at racing's new broadcaster
The extent to which ITV Racing has yet to match Channel 4's final audiences has become starkly apparent with the first detailed revelation of figures showing a loss of well over three million viewers across comparable programming.
Following the jolt of ITV's first Randox Health Grand National ratings, unexpectedly below all those managed by Channel 4 during its four-year tenure as racing's mainstream partner, the most comprehensive assessment of ITV's performance so far makes further tricky reading for racing.
For although the ITV output has been notably well received by racing professionals, journalists and fans on social media, the positive critical response has not been mirrored by the sort of viewing numbers the racecourse rights holders might have hoped to see.
As was widely predicted, those meetings shown on the main ITV channel have largely – but not exclusively – outperformed the equivalent fixtures aired on the IMG-produced Channel 4 Racing in 2016, both assessed by overall numbers and audience share.
However, those fixtures allocated positions on ITV4 have struggled relative to the same free-to-air days shown last year, with ITV4's afternoon racing programmes having forfeited just under a third of the Channel 4 viewership.
Yet the gap between old and new has been greatest in the mornings, when across the year to date The Opening Show has pulled in 46 per cent fewer viewers than managed by The Morning Line, which itself suffered a widely-reported ratings tumble compared to the shows that came under the control of Channel 4's former Highflyer production company.
Indeed, in the most juddering of all numbers, The Opening Show on the Thursday morning of Aintree's Grand National meeting had an average audience of only 31,000 viewers, down by 78 per cent on the 142,000 recorded by Channel 4 in 2016.
Explaining the data
The BARB (Broadcasters Audience Research Board) figures given in the adjoining graphics were submitted by ITV and Channel 4 following Racing Post requests made to the two broadcasters.
Audience figures show the average number of people who watched a programme either live or 'as live', while the share denotes the percentage of people viewing the programme in question relative to those watching any television channel at the time of broadcast.
To ensure fair comparisons, the Racing Post has removed from the data some of the meetings transmitted by Channel 4 between January 1, 2016, and the end of last year's Grand National festival.
Numbers for Saturday, January 9, 2016, headlined by the Lanzarote Hurdle, are not included, as this Saturday, in effect, did not exist in 2017 when the Kempton fixture formed the secondary attraction on Warwick's Betfred Classic Chase card.
Also not used was Channel 4's 2016 Good Friday coverage from Lingfield, as that last year fell in late March, whereas this year it has moved to this week. For similar reasons, Channel 4 totals do not reflect the 2016 Dubai World Cup, which retained a place on the network due to Dubai's sponsorship of Channel 4 Racing.
Also not included are the ratings or shares for the final March Saturday in each year. This is because, once again linked to Easter, the meetings showcased were completely different. However, for comprehensive reference, Channel 4's afternoon coverage from Haydock and Kempton on that Saturday had an average 518,000 audience and 4.9 per cent share, while ITV4's Newbury and Kelso offering this year was seen by 294,000 people with a 4.2 per cent share.
The brief handed to ITV
When choosing to sell racing's mainstream rights to ITV, the sport's racecourse rights holders, whose negotiating team was headed by Racecourse Media Group chief executive Richard FitzGerald, took a bold step. They took an even bolder step four years earlier.
In 2012 it was announced that from the following year racing would disappear from BBC Television, with the premier national channel's crown jewel events moving to Channel 4, which, motivated by the money to be made from bookmaker advertising, paid a reported £15 million for a four-year deal and moved production from Highflyer to IMG.
Under Channel 4's tenure, the audience for the Grand National, by far and away the sport's flagship event, held up impressively, but, amidst a trend for falling figures, the numbers watching the Investec Derby, Royal Ascot and Qipco British Champions Day collapsed, causing some to question the wisdom of axing the BBC.
For the 2017-20 contract, Sky became a major player, but ultimately it was ITV, like Channel 4 heavily influenced by the attraction of bookmaker advertising spend, that triumphed. This triggered significant ill feeling within Channel 4, which felt that as a partner for over three decades it had been treated shoddily, not least by failing to be given the chance to respond to what proved to be ITV's winning bid. At Channel 4's London base, it is thought that feeling of injustice remains.
In the initial announcement of ITV's victory, it was stated the company would air nearly 100 days of British racing, 34 of them on the main ITV channel, the remainder on ITV4. Since then, the ratio has changed, with 42 days (of which 33 are still to come) on ITV. That still leaves most afternoon racing days and all The Opening Show morning magazine programmes on ITV4, which boasts a large portfolio of sport, including the Tour de France, snooker and darts.
ITV4 can achieve impressive sport ratings - including at least once over a million for the Tour de France - but generally its smaller appeal, due to the channel's lower position on the electronic programme guide, impacts negatively on audiences, just as racing found when the sport was moved from Channel 4 to More4.
Asked for his views on the likely ITV4 audience in January last year, FitzGerald said: "I think it's fair to say that probably initially it will be less but we believe there is a very strong transferable audience and certainly the ambition is to get it on a like-for-like level with Channel 4 during the life of the contract."
On his expectations for the major days on ITV, the RMG chief added: "You can read whatever you want into viewing figures. We feel there will be a significant enhancement. Royal Ascot and the Derby in particular should see some substantial increases."
What has happened: the afternoons
Across all the programmes, where like-for-like comparisons can be made, ITV Racing has pulled in 15,310,000 viewers. Over the same meetings, Channel 4 managed 16,707,000. With both broadcasters, the figures are somewhat inflated by the Grand National day programmes being split in two.
When purely assessing racing shown on ITV's flagship channel, ITV is in front of Channel 4, although the ratings gap between the two is smaller than some might have anticipated due to an ITV Grand National figure that was plainly hit hard by the glorious weather. Judged on the year's share, ITV holds a much bigger lead, helped by its peak share for the National having been a very strong 62 per cent.
Over the first two days at Aintree ITV was also superior to the most recent BBC2 numbers, while at the Cheltenham Festival it was 22 per cent up on Channel 4 for overall audiences and 21 per cent for share.
Interestingly, though, Grand National day was not the first on which main channel racing on ITV failed to meet an established Channel 4 level, as the Grimthorpe Chase programme from Doncaster, initially scheduled for ITV3, had a 410,000 average, down on Channel 4's 470,000.
Not surprisingly, Channel 4 also polled better in the afternoons when marked against ITV4.
On most occasions the gap between the two has been notable, such as on ITV4's Saturday debut when the difference was over 200,000 viewers. An ITV4 trend has yet to form, with ratings going up and down, so much so that the ITV4 high of 413,000 for Cheltenham Festival trials day was followed one week later by what remains the low of 287,000 for Sandown's Scilly Isles Chase card.
However, the fact that on Imperial Cup afternoon ITV4 got an audience of 403,000 (4.3 per cent share), only marginally less than Channel 4's 2016 430,000 (4.3 per cent share), indicates it would not be impossible for ITV4 to equal, or perhaps even top, what Channel 4 has recorded.
What has happened: the mornings
Like ITV's afternoon racing output, The Opening Show has received largely impressive reviews - although some have complained about the 10am start time - but the ratings are well down on Channel 4's The Morning Line.
Across the year so far, where like-for-like comparisons are possible, The Opening Show audience totals are down 46 per cent on those of The Morning Line, while the average two per cent share represents a similar drop.
Aintree provided good and bad news.
The Grand National day 192,000 audience and 3.6 per cent share represented the best yet for the programme.
However, two days earlier, The Opening Show averaged only 31,000 viewers (0.7 per cent share), a probably unprecedented low for a racing programme on British mainstream television. One week earlier, a repeat of The Sweeney handed the equivalent timeslot had attracted a broadly similar audience, underlining the figure is not unusual for ITV4 on a weekday mid-morning. Homes Under The Hammer, broadcast by the BBC at 10am midweek, pulls in around one million viewers.
Racing a winner for ITV
People will have different views about whether racing is doing well on ITV. Also important, however, is an understanding that ITV bosses are almost certainly pleased with how racing is working for ITV.
Racing appears regularly on ITV4 not simply because repeats of films draw bigger ratings than racing, but also because the sport is helping to boost ITV4, both in terms of its popularity and reputation.
Also crucial is that racing looks set to be a huge financial hit for ITV, with money brought in from bookmaker advertising and William Hill sponsorship - assuming none of that is challenged by the government's ongoing gambling review - making the reported £30 million four-year rights fee seem to be remarkably good value.
However, if bookmakers are boosting ITV, there is every indication ITV is doing the same for bookmakers, which have pointed to pleasing turnover figures since the channel change.
Coral's David Stevens says: "During the final four years of Channel 4's coverage, turnover on the racing they showed fell in line with the overall decline we saw on the sport, suggesting the punting audience was not being lost.
"The early indications are that turnover levels are again in line with our expectations since the switch to ITV and, equally importantly, to ITV4, once more suggesting those tuning in because they've had a bet have established a consistent viewing habit when the action moves off the main channel.
"With regard to the biggest betting event of the year, the Grand National, turnover again met our expectations, so we would be unconcerned by the audience figure on the day itself, with the fine weather surely a major factor and the audience share percentage extremely healthy."
Stevens adds: "In terms of the ITV coverage, the way the team covered the Ryan Moore Lincoln day gamble - from Oli Bell's presenting to Richard Hoiles' superb commentary - confirms they fully understand the importance of the relationship between racing and betting. Clearly that is something we welcome."
Should racing be worried?
Both ITV and Channel 4 point to many important demographic aspects to their figures. ITV highlights year-on-year increases among those aged 16 to 34, ABC1s and men at Cheltenham and Aintree, while Channel 4's data indicates that when all programming is considered it has clear leads within all such groups, as it does when judged on reach, defined as those who watch for at least three consecutive minutes.
Ultimately, however, returns for average audience and share are the easiest way of comparing ITV Racing in 2017 with Channel 4 Racing in 2016. Taken as a whole, Channel 4 currently leads the race.
However, that is a simplistic analysis.
It would be unfair to bash ITV with its disappointing Grand National audience. The weather surely must have played a huge part in limiting the eyes focused on Aintree. On top of that, the race has a habit of delivering freak figures, such as the extremely odd low of 7.6 million for Sir Anthony McCoy's victory on BBC1 in 2010.
Take out the Grand National and one could argue ITV is so far doing what the rights holders - who have described themselves as delighted with the quality of coverage - expected. They anticipated a marked ITV4 drop but wanted the major occasions on ITV to outstrip Channel 4. Over four days at Cheltenham and the opening two afternoons at Aintree, that proved to be the case.
Many will continue totting up the numbers to see if, come the year's end, racing on ITV and ITV4 combined was seen by more or less people than watched Channel 4. That will plainly be an interesting barometer of success. However, to those who signed the dotted line on behalf of racecourses, perhaps even more important are the numbers achieved for the 33 main channel ITV afternoons still to come, particularly the Derby, Royal Ascot and Champions Day.
So far we have only limited evidence. By the end of the year it will be much more apparent to what extent ITV has proved to be a winning bet for racing.
ITV is making racing 'accessible'
Richard FitzGerald, who led the team that selected ITV as the sport's new mainstream television partner, has praised the broadcaster's "demystification" of racing.
Although the RMG chief executive has made no comment on ITV's ratings, he has made clear his delight regarding the top commercial channel's product.
FitzGerald told the Racing Post: "We are very encouraged with the start made by ITV to the four-year contract and have been impressed by their team’s energy and commitment to making racing a success on ITV.
"ITV's cross-programme and cross-sport promotion of racing, allied to the broadcaster’s investment in nationwide advertising campaigns, has been more than we could have hoped for.
"The broadcaster's demystification of racing, especially on the ITV main channel, is making what can be a complex sport at times more accessible, without alienating existing fans."
Fitzgerald added: "I thought the coverage of the Cheltenham Festival and the Randox Health Grand National festival was excellent and gave the sport the best possible shop window."