TVG Network's Untapped Potential

By Andrew Beyer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

For many racing fans, life without the TVG Network would be almost unimaginable.

The horse racing channel has altered the sport. Thoroughbred racing had a minimal presence on television until TVG was born in 1999 and eventually secured a place on DirecTV, the Dish Network and local cable systems. It televises live races for as many as 12 hours a day and sends reporters to major stakes events and race meetings throughout the country. Yet whenever serious bettors talk about TVG, they are relentlessly critical. Members of the network's core audience readily recite a litany of complaints about its commentators and its coverage. Many declare that they immediately press the "mute" button on the remote whenever they turn on the channel.

Hard-core viewers' love-hate relationship with TVG is related to the central questions with which the network has always struggled: What is its audience? Should it aim its programming at committed racing fans or at casual viewers? TVG has always tried to appeal to the wider audience. It was christened the Television Games Network to play down the fact that this was a horse racing channel.

TVG initially tried to attract mainstream viewers by emphasizing human-interest features and interviews while often ignoring the races. A few years ago, Churchill Downs had a giant pick-six carryover that TVG's commentators discussed throughout the afternoon. When the climactic 10th race approached, however, the channel made no mention of it, showing no odds and no post parade. Post time arrived -- and TVG didn't televise the race. Its commentators were yapping about something irrelevant. Not until 10 minutes after the race was official did someone mention that the pick six at Churchill had produced a six-figure payoff.

"TVG started out really going after the novice," executive producer Tony Allevato said. "Now we're looking for more of a middle ground. We have to walk a fine line. We don't want to alienate our bread-and-butter viewers. But if we talk over the heads of the casual fan, we're not going to grow our business." The company, owned by media giant Gemstar-TV Guide, grows its own business if those casual fans become horseplayers and open wagering accounts with TVG.

Now TVG is televising more races. Sunday it presented the full cards from five tracks plus selected races from three others, beginning with the first race at Philadelphia Park at 12:30 p.m. and ending with the last quarter-horse race from Los Alamitos at 12:44 a.m. Eastern time. But even in busy periods, the network rarely shows more than seven races per hour, leaving plenty of time for talk.

Some of the talk is informative. Retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has been a superb addition to the TVG cast. Trainer Tom Amoss can be counted on for incisive comments when he appears on "The Works," the network's series of pre-Kentucky Derby programs. Matt Carothers is a diligent and articulate analyst.

But much of the time, TVG exasperates horseplayers. The network is an unreliable provider of basic racing information. Its analysts are often the last people in America to know when races have been taken off the turf. They're often unaware of scratches. TVG wastes too much time on postrace interviews with jockeys that almost never produce any worthwhile information. Allevato says: "We have to portray jockeys as the stars of our sport. They are the faces of horse racing."

The most prevalent faces on TVG, however, are those of its commentators. The network devotes as much time to the on-air personalities making their picks as it does to the races themselves. In the world of TVG, there are only two forms of wagering that matter -- the pick four and the pick six -- and TVG's handicappers are continually touting their preferred combinations. Simon likes 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 in the first leg of the pick four, the 3 in the second leg, 1, 3, 6 and 7 in the third leg and 3, 7, 12 in the last race. Todd is playing 2, 3, with 1, 3, 6, with 2, 3, 8, 10 with 12. It has become the network's obsession. One owner complained to me: "I turned on TVG to see my horse win a race in Kentucky, and they didn't say anything about the horse. All they were saying was, 'That gave me the pick four!' "

Yet in explaining their picks, the TVG analysts rarely do more than recite information that already appears in the Daily Racing Form's past performances. They rarely make a persuasive case for their selections. They don't tell even intermediate-level handicappers in their audience anything they don't already know. It is a fallacy, I believe, that TVG needs to simplify its presentation so it won't alienate novices. It should emulate the model of CNBC, the financial-news channel, which manages to present sophisticated information and analysis without talking over the heads of its diverse audience. TVG could do many things to enlighten the whole spectrum of its viewers.

In its analysis of races, TVG should show film clips that reveal horses being blocked or checked or otherwise having tough trips. It could teach neophytes how to watch a race intelligently while at the same time point out to bettors that these horses deserve special attention.

Whenever TVG telecasts live from a track, one of its analysts should be in the paddock to point out which horses look good and which look bad -- and to explain what is good or bad about them. Ex-trainers Simon Bray and Frank Lyons have the expertise to educate beginners and at the same time provide bettors information that they couldn't get on their own.

If TVG wants to create new horseplayers, it should understand that people don't get hooked on racing through feature stories or jockey interviews. They don't get hooked on racing by playing 2, 3, 5, 7 and 11 and hoping to get lucky with a long shot. Novices turn into committed horseplayers because they recognize that this is a difficult and challenging game, and they want to master its complexities. TVG ought to acknowledge that complexity and stop underestimating its audience.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company