How do you transform a normal human being into a horseplayer?
Racetracks and their marketing departments have been trying for decades to find an answer. Now the new horse-racing channel, the Television Games Network, is attempting to do it by developing a hip, jazzy and unconventional format that will grab the attention of casual viewers. I wrote recently that the production is so embarrassingly juvenile that it is likely to fail, costing the sport a golden opportunity to reach a big new audience. But TVG could succeed with the right approach, and there already is a successful model on television for it to emulate.
If you ask established horseplayers how they fell in love with the sport, most will give similar answers. They will say they were fascinated by the challenge of doping out a race; many experienced an epiphany the first time they used logic to pick a winner, and they were hooked for life after concluding that the game could be beaten with intelligent analysis. But TVG Vice President Rick Baedeker said the network expects to "entice the channel surfer" partly by featuring the "tremendous equine and human athletic stories" in racing. How many people become horseplayers because racetrack human-interest stories appeal to them? My estimate: zero.
In a nation that already is gambling-mad, the network needs to show its audience that racing is the greatest of all gambling games. Study, knowledge and good judgment give the bettor a fighting chance to win.
But poring over the Daily Racing Form for hours can be a monastic exercise, and TVG wants racing to be hip. Risking your money on your own opinion is an intense experience, and TVG desperately wants to be cool. Its producers understandably worry that they will drive away viewers with a presentation that is too technical or intimidating. So the result is Horse Racing Lite--filled with features and idle chatter and hosts who pick horses because they like their names.
If TVG fears losing viewers by taking its subject too seriously, its producers ought to watch the financial coverage on CNBC. Even for a viewer with minimal interest in the stock market, CNBC can be mesmerizing. Almost everyone who appears on camera is smart, serious and opinionated. Even when interviewees are talking about something esoteric--trends in soybean futures, or a stock that has penetrated its 100-day moving average--they are engaging because they are passionate about the subject matter. They are staking their reputations on their opinions.
I asked a CNBC executive how the network appeals simultaneously to corporate executives and casual viewers with little knowledge of finance. He said the network had thoughtfully developed techniques to appeal to a wide audience. CNBC limits the use of jargon, defining terms as often as possible. It uses holiday programming to educate viewers when the markets are closed. It presents information with graphics that are simple and clear. Its on-screen personalities are very well informed, but their personalities are "accessible." While experts convey their message as clearly as possible, nobody patronizes the audience. A novice investor watching CNBC feels like an insider.
CNBC has proved it is possible to engage viewers while presenting subject matter that is sophisticated and technical, and TVG should aspire to do the same for horse racing--without resorting to buffoonery. The only way TVG will succeed in its ultimate goal--to create new customers for horse racing--is to educate viewers about how to handicap and bet.
Suppose TVG was televising the 10th race at Laurel on Aug. 1. Little Big Thorn looked strong as he turned into the stretch, but jockey Steve Hamilton found himself hopelessly blocked on the rail and finished fourth on a horse who probably should have won. A commentator could point out what happened to Little Big Thorn, using a slow-motion replay or a telestrator so that even the most obtuse viewer would see the horse was better than his fourth-place finish might indicate. Obviously, this is a horse who might deserve to be bet the next time he runs.
When is the next time? The commentator might explain that the Daily Racing Form's Web site offers a free feature called Stable Mail; a user can submit the name of a horse he is waiting for, and he'll receive an e-mail message when the horse is entered in a race. Thus, a neophyte TVG viewer might start his own horses-to-watch list. When Little Big Thorn appears in the entries, the viewer might see the need to open a TVG telephone-betting account. And if Little Big Thorn comes back to win, a new fan will be hooked on the game.