In the mid-1990s, when analogue satellite was the main multichannel service, a new channel came on stream from a company called Satellite Information Services or SIS. Known as The Racing Channel, the channel was a subscription service, costing £20 a month. Not surprisingly, the channel didn't get many viewers but, for a few years, it carried on.
The Racing Channel supplied Sky Sports with the "Racing News" programme, and the two companies co-produced Sky's "The Winning Post" programme. The Racing Channel's studio set was quite simple. A backdrop and a desk and 2 or 3 chairs, with only 3 cameras used in the studio, one for the wide shot of the entire studio, one for the presenter and one for the guests.
The studio desk also had a frontage piece that was changed depending on the show. For "Racing News", the frontage had 4 "Racing News" logos on it. When The Racing Channel came on at 11am, the frontage would have been changed to feature the logo of "The Racing Channel" on each of the 4 panels of the frontage.
In 1998, when Digital Satellite came on stream, The Racing Channel expanded its hours and brought in a new brand to show horseracing from North America. The Racing Network International comes on at 6pm, with the same studio, but a different backdrop, frontage and indeed, graphics and logo, but essentially it is the same team involved in The Racing Channel.
But in the world of rights, there were changes afoot. Channel 4 was putting together a consortium including Sky that was looking to take the rights to show all 59 UK racecourses. The consortium was called attheraces, and it would be competing against The Racing Channel's parent company, SIS, which had been supplying footage to bookmakers, broadcasters and the racing world for years.
In 2001, things took an interesting twist, when the Jockey Club, the people who run horseracing in the UK, awarded attheraces the rights to 49 of the 59 UK racecourses, with SIS having the rights to 10 of the courses.
This left an interesting situation to develop. attheraces had the dominant position and set about creating a channel that would appeal to the public. Meanwhile, The Racing Channel were in a bit of a predicament. About to lose the rights to the majority of the UK's racecourses, they had to do something to help fill their schedule; otherwise the lack of content was going to be quite obvious.
attheraces launched with much more style in a much bigger, much more hi-tech studio than The Racing Channel, which was and still is using the same studio and set it had been using since launch. The Racing Channel had obtained rights to use coverage from Ireland, Germany and South Africa, in addition to the 10 UK courses that they hold the rights to.
On attheraces, there is a whole schedule, starting at 7am, running all day, with a variety of programmes all to do with Horse Racing. News updates, reviews of the previous days action, action from around the world and live races from across the UK, as well as discussion and phone-in programmes all have a place in the wide and varied schedule that attheraces runs. This compares favourably to The Racing Channel who basically do very little more than show live races and review previous days action these days.
attheraces seems to be setting the new standard for coverage, and is now producing a lunchtime magazine show, called Lunchtime attheraces, which is being shown on weekdays on Channel 4, one of its parent companies. It's an example of Channel 4 selecting carefully its multichannel investments. attheraces is a specialist channel that uses the long pedigree of Horse Racing coverage that Channel 4 built up over the years after it was gifted to them by ITV.
Channel 4 have had some much publicised troubles with their multichannels, despite being careful about what they did. FilmFour is doing reasonably well, even though it lost a whole load of subscribers when On/ITV Digital went belly up. E4 though has lost a lot of money very quickly and although it is doing its best to recover, it will take time, and it will be a while before it can look to properly take on Sky 1 and Channel 5.
However, attheraces is consistently achieving ratings, something that in the multichannel arena is difficult. Okay, they only register 0.2% or 0.3% share a week, but that compares favourably to The Racing Channel who don't even register, along with a number of other channels.
The Channel 4 stable of channels maybe dominated, perception-wise, by FilmFour and E4, but attheraces is proving to be a good workhorse for Channel 4, and that is something the channel can be proud of.
Since this article was written, Channel 4 withdrew from attheraces. The channel is now owned by its former partners Sky and Arena Leisure.