Racing: TV hopes rise as Channel 4 delay deadline

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The Independent Online

Channel 4 television executives last night threw a lifeline to the racing industry by postponing last night's midnight deadline over its threat to end its 21-year coverage of the sport.

Channel 4 television executives last night threw a lifeline to the racing industry by postponing last night's midnight deadline over its threat to end its 21-year coverage of the sport.

After talks in London yesterday with racing and betting industry representatives, the broadcaster announced that the deadline would be put back to this coming Friday. The television company said this was to allow talks to continue about "apportioning production costs".

"While the prospect of a positive outcome to the talks remains the channel has delayed making a final decision," the statement added.

Unless a deal is reached, the sport of racing may have entered quite a new world, a bleak rather than a brave one.

A deadline has passed and we must now wait to see if the broadcasters carry out their threat and remove racing from their schedules. The £8m sponsorship Channel 4 insist is required to continue their programming has not been forthcoming from the various interests in the turf. Now the sport waits nervously, as if a photo-finish after a particularly large bet is being decided.

The broadcaster claims to lose £5m on its coverage of the sport, while it says it could earn another £5m from whatever took its place. They will settle for £8m to continue in 2006, but that subsidy figure was rejected by a committee of racing and betting industry executives last week.

The bookmakers have done something at which they are very good, their sums, and believe survival is most possible if Channel 4 ends its 21-year racing tenure. They made plentiful profit before they came along and can do so again. The bookmakers are aware they will be made the bad boys, the men with the black stetsons, for any failure to compromise.

"We know we will be perceived as the bad guys, but it is important to stress that it is just not the bookmakers but racing as a whole which has rejected this idea," David Stevens of Coral said last night. "It was a unanimous decision at last week's meeting to discuss Channel 4's demands.

"Channel 4 are demanding money that we will not pay because of the precedent it will set. We do not pay any other broadcaster of televised sport. How can racing expect to be treated differently? And how can we fund a station over which we do not have any editorial control, especially as they actively promote our rivals, the betting exchanges? The situation looks unworkable.

"If Channel 4 makes a commercial decision to pull out of racing the betting industry will have to live with that. We would be disappointed. But racing would still have two dedicated satellite channels and the great coverage of the BBC. Racing is not going to go down the pan. It will not be coming to an end next year."

Now Channel 4's bluff, if it was ever that, has been called. If they depart, the BBC will pick up the jewels, but many pearls will roll off the broken string. A large number of significant races will be absented from the televised roster.

One suggestion is that Channel 4 Racing can become a much leaner machine, thus lowering the funds required to keep it afloat. For presenter John McCririck, who seems about to be impaled on his beloved market forces, that is specifically, physically true. One intimation is that £2m could be saved from the current production costs, but that would certainly lead to a sacrifice in editorial quality.

The Racecourse Association chairman, David Thorpe, a leading figure in the negotiations, said on Monday: "The issue about the cost structure is that we think the production is too extravagant. There are too many presenters and probably too many fixtures. We appreciate that Channel 4 thrive on quality, which is fantastic to see, but we can't afford it. They have to cut their cloth according to their means."