The Grand National has been a fixture of British culture for nearly 200 years. The first race was run in 1836, and every year it has gotten better and better.
The 2023 Grand National will be just as exciting as we wait to see if Noble Yeats can achieve coveted back-to-back wins. Or will a new victor step out of the shadows to claim the glory on April 15th 2023?
Either way, we will all be able to watch it live on iTV. But it hasn’t always been that way.
So let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and dive into the broadcasting history of the Grand National.
Where It All Began
Three National Hunt races were broadcast on television in 1948, and within a short space of time, there was regular coverage from Kempton Park and Ascot.
After years of negotiation, the Grand National was finally televised in 1960 on BBC. The original commentators were Peter O’Sullevan, Clive Graham, and Peter Bromley.
The programme was presented by Cliff Michelmore, who stepped in at the last minute for David Coleman, who was suffering from appendicitis.
Coverage became better in 1969 when the National was televised in colour for the first time. The only thing to go wrong was when O’Hehir made a rare error by calling the winner Highland Wedding as a faller.
He moved to BBC Radio after that and commentated on a further 16 Nationals before his son Tony took over, doing 12 National commentaries before moving into television.
Moving Into the 90s
There was a slump in the National viewing figures in 1995, with only 11.9 million tuning in, and this decreased even further the following year. This was a cause for concern as prior to 1995, approximately 16 million tuned in a year.
Strangely in 1997, viewing figures saw a massive increase when the National was rescheduled for the Monday following the IRA bomb threats. A total of 15.1 million tuned in to what was to become the most-watched sports event on TV that year.
1998 was the first year that they attached mini-cameras to three jockeys helmets in three of the races giving a unique view of the Aintree racecourse.
The three races were John Hughes Memorial Trophy, The Martell Fox Hunters’ Chase, and the Grand National.
After the races, the footage was put together for use in a mobile simulator, the Morphis MovieRide Theatre, which is now a permanent attraction in the Aintree Visitors Centre.
It aims to give participants the jockey experience without having to sit on a horse.
In 1999 viewer numbers dipped once again with only 10.1 million viewers, even though the coverage was better than it ever had been. A record number of 45 cameras were used as opposed to the 16 that were used when the race was first broadcast in 1960.
The Grand National Moves To Channel 4
By 2000 viewing figures had dropped even further to 8.9 million, for which the fine weather was blamed, but still more people watched the Grand National than did Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Golf Open.
2001 saw the National televised to 148 countries around the world, and for the first time, China had live coverage, thereby increasing the potential TV audience to 650 million.
The advent of the internet also meant that the great race could be watched online. Unfortunately, that year there were technical problems that left John Hamner having to commentate on 24 of the 30 fences as opposed to his intended 12.
By 2003 there were only 7.8 million viewers in the UK but more than 600 million tuned in globally.
With viewership figures dwindling, the BBC had to seriously consider their status as the exclusive broadcaster of the Grand National. When the deal came up for renewal in 2012, they were outbid by Channel 4 in a deal understood to be worth more than £20m.
Channel 4 negotiated a four-year deal to broadcast the Grand National, Derby and Royal Ascot from 2013, making it the exclusive broadcaster of British racing on terrestrial television.
Broadcasting Moves To iTV
On 27 December 2016, the Welsh Grand National from Chepstow was Channel 4’s last coverage of horse racing until 2021. It was speculated that they lost the broadcasting rights due to a decrease in its viewership.
They handed the reins to ITV, who struck a deal to broadcast up to one hundred days of racing each year, including the Cheltenham Festival, the Grand National, the Derby Festival and Royal Ascot.
ITV has been heralded as revitalising British horseracing by recruiting commentators, including A.P. McCoy and Ruby Walsh.
Coverage for the Grand National peaked in 2019 at 9.6 million. The race was cancelled in 2020, so by 2021 the appetite was there.
An audience of 8.8 million tuned in to see Rachael Blackmore become the first female jockey to win the race, and when it came time for the 2022 Grand National, 7.5 million viewers watched Sam Waley-Cohen win on his last ever ride.
The deal struck with iTV only extends until 2023, so expect another lengthy negotiation in the coming months as the battle to broadcast the Grand National continues.