Saturday, April 07, 2007

University Boat Race

The University Boat Race can be a viewing highlight of the year.

Having wrestled the TV rights away from the BBC, this is the third year of ITV’s coverage. Gone are the hours and hours of build-up that Grandstand used to broadcast and the pre-race documentaries following the teams.

Gone too is the proper coverage of the reserve race, which starts thirty minutes before the main event ... a useful warm-up for the TV audience, getting them used to the course and the commentary terminology. Boo hiss!

With Formula 1 deemed more important, big-hitter Steve Rider (another ex-BBC asset now appearing on ITV) is stuck in Malaysia, leaving Mark Durden-Smith as a very competent anchor for the coverage.

(While F1 features prominently on the ITV website, The Boat Race gets a tiny link once you navigate to the sport pages. Maybe not quite what the organisers intended when they awarded ITV the contract, when if I remember correctly, thet hailed the innovative programming that ITV had promised in their bid.)

Before the start of the race, this year’s University Boat Race was a done deal. Cambridge’s boat (an oversized canoe) would be full of medal winners and previous race participants. Oxford had only one returning rower, and no one who had won medals in international competitions.

Just before 4pm this afternoon, the odds being offered by local bookmakers Eastwoods reflected this too.


  • Cambridge 4/7
  • Oxford 7/5
  • Dead heat 100/1

But pre-race form isn’t everything. The weather, tide, health of the rowers, concentration of the coxes, all affects the outcome.

So Eastwoods will consider other outcomes too!

  • Any boat to sink? Yes 25/1

So the main race will soon be underway, and ITV’s sleight-of-hand is over.

Just before the 4.30 start, there was an ad break. And just before that, accompanied by pictures of the river, an off-screen Mark handed over to the lead commentator Peter Drury. “Thank you Mark” said Peter, talking to an empty studio!

In a recent interview with Broadcast magazine, the show’s editor Tony Pastor admitted that they have to prerecord the handover link to allow the main presenters enough time to get to the river bank, hop into a speedboat and be moved up-river to the finish line, while leaving enough time for the river to settle down for the rowers.

The joys of live TV.

Fingers will now be crossed that ITV Sport’s digital wireless network copes with the 37 cameras and numerous sound feeds that are covering the course. In years gone by, bad weather hampered the feed from the BBC’s on-boat camera’s—which transmit up to an overhead helicopter (but microwaves and mist don’t mix)! And fingers crossed that the cox’s language will be less colourful than last year when they cut to it during the live coverage!

(c) 2007 Michael Reeve

Update: The light blues rowed a good race, keeping calm through-out, despite Oxford’s surprisingly fast start, and despite Cambridge's lack of rowing precision and efficiency during the race. But Cambridge won, and Rebecca Dowbiggin, their female cox (who was only promoted to the main boat in the last week) will shortly get thrown into the river in celebration.

Pity that at the moment ITV were being thanked by the race organise, they didn't have a picture of him speaking. And pity that when Rebecca was tossed into the river in the post-victory presentation set piece, the muscled rowers blocked the view. Maybe ITV forgot to rehearse that bit when they ran a mock race with two London school crews yesterday to sort out the technical niceties of a one-off event!

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