Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

The horses are set to gallop off C4 and on to the minority channels
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The Independent Online

British television institution is likely to receive the last rites next week. Ever since I was a kid, which is now a very long time ago - and despite the fact that the numbers watching it have been consistently low - there has always been hours and hours of horse racing on mainstream TV. It even got mass coverage in the days of black-and-white television, when you could hardly tell one horse from another, let alone know what colours the jockeys worry.

British television institution is likely to receive the last rites next week. Ever since I was a kid, which is now a very long time ago - and despite the fact that the numbers watching it have been consistently low - there has always been hours and hours of horse racing on mainstream TV. It even got mass coverage in the days of black-and-white television, when you could hardly tell one horse from another, let alone know what colours the jockeys worry.

But, next week, that could all come to an end and within a year or two the only horse racing likely to be found on mainstream TV is coverage of the big four meetings: Royal Ascot, Epsom (including the Derby), Aintree (including the Grand National) and Cheltenham. All four are likely to be broadcast on the BBC. What this means is that those hours of racing from the likes of Haydock, Chepstow and Goodwood will be a thing of the past.

So what is it that is likely to bring about the demise of television racing after so many years? The answer is that Channel 4 has worked out that its coverage of racing is costing it a net £10m a year when all the advertising income is taken into account. Andy Duncan, the channel's new(ish) chief executive, is of the view that that is £8m a year too much.

The channel has worked out that the racing industry makes a great deal of money out of racing being broadcast on terrestrial television. In particular, they have worked out that the money the bookmakers take on a race is trebled if it is shown on the BBC or Channel 4. Duncan has asked the racing industry for an £8m a year donation to Channel 4 if they want to keep racing alive on the channel.

The problem is that the different parts of the racing industry - the bookies, the racecourse owners, the Levy Board and the British Horseracing Board - can hardly agree on what day of the week it is, so their chances of agreeing to give £8m a year to Channel 4, and working out how much each of them should pay for it, are close to zero. But Channel 4's deadline day of 31 May is fast approaching, and if no deal is concluded by then it will pull out of racing.

When Channel 4 lost the cricket contract, it immediately announced that it would spend the £13m it had saved on original drama. No doubt the channel believes, probably rightly, that spending another £10m a year on even more Channel 4 drama will please far more people than dropping racing will antagonise.

There is little doubt that if Channel 4 goes down this route, the BBC will pick up the coverage of the Cheltenham Festival and do what it has wanted to do for some years - just concentrate on the crown jewels of racing and forget all the obscure meetings that it has felt obliged to cover in the past.

The interesting question is not why is this happening now, but how come horse racing managed to hang on to so many valuable slots for so long? The answer, I suspect, is that horse racing has always been a sport supported by a mixture of toffs and spivs, and many years ago the toffs managed to persuade the broadcasting authorities that, somehow, covering horse racing was a public duty and should fit alongside the likes of news, documentaries and current affairs in the category of "public service broadcasting". This meant that for years the broadcasters were told that they had a duty to preserve racing, regardless of the economics of it.

And, of course, there have always been people high up in television who were devoted to the sport. When, against his wishes, ITV decided to drop horse racing in the early Eighties, Paul Fox, then the managing director of Yorkshire Television but later the chairman of the Racecourse Association, somehow managed to persuade the first chief executive of Channel 4, Jeremy Isaacs, that covering horse racing was essential to the Channel 4 remit of serving minorities. How he did it is anybody's guess, but after 25 years that commitment is likely to end next week.

This doesn't mean that horse racing won't be available to its devotees in the future. The Racing UK channel, which is owned by the racecourse owners, has 30,000 subscribers paying £20 a month, and is now profitable. Sky's At the Races channel is also still struggling on.

But the days of hours and hours of terrestrial racing coverage are finally coming to an end - much to the relief of the millions of viewers who never enjoyed racing in the first place.

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