Boat Race: Cracknell buoyant that ITV will rise to new challenge

Here is a Boat Race statistic which ITV will probably steer clear of when it shows the main event tomorrow: the BBC has broadcast the annual meeting between the crews from Oxford and Cambridge on the last 66 occasions.

Here is a Boat Race statistic which ITV will probably steer clear of when it shows the main event tomorrow: the BBC has broadcast the annual meeting between the crews from Oxford and Cambridge on the last 66 occasions.

That is a measure of the task facing the television company that has taken over responsibility for one of the nation's most cherished sporting occasions. Will ITV be able to match the ease and assurance with which Steve Rider and Co managed to deal with this most technically challenging task? Or will they catch a crab?

James Cracknell, the double Olympic champion, is ideally placed to compare the two operations. In recent years he has been a frequent contributor to the BBC coverage, along with colleagues Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent, but he now has a three-year contract with ITV which will, among other duties, see him playing a central part in their Boat Race production.

Before and after the race, Cracknell will co-present the ITV show with Gabby Logan. In between times, he follows the boats on a launch, offering reports.

"They will be coming through to me every two or three minutes, and I will be giving a slightly different viewpoint on the event," he said. "You can see things happening at that level that aren't immediately clear from other positions. Like when Seb Mayer blew up for Cambridge in 2002. He was virtually unconscious at the end, but he'd been flagging for a while."

ITV will start its coverage today with a one-hour documentary detailing the crews' preparations over the last nine months. The ITV team's efforts, none the less, can hardly have been lifted by the comments of the new controller of sport, Mark Sharman, that he would not have signed the five-year, £1.75m deal had he been in charge at the time.

Cracknell accepts that ITV is going to have to do not just as well as the BBC, but maybe even better, if it is to earn favourable reviews. But he is confident.

"We will be using 37 cameras - that's about 10 more than there ever have been before - including two in the boat which face towards the cox and down at the crew." he said. "We'll have two cameras in the umpire's boat - one looking at him, and the other at his view. After last year's clash, when the umpire played a key part, we couldn't see what he had seen."

Viewers will also have graphic information constantly on screen detailing the crews' relative positions, and work-rates. Race commentary, meanwhile, will come from Peter Drury and Cracknell's colleague in the Olympic gold medal-winning four at the Sydney Olympics, Tim Foster.

"I think people who know about rowing will watch the Boat Race anyway," Cracknell added. "What we want to do with our presentation is to allow people who aren't experts about rowing to understand and enjoy what's happening.

"The bottom line is that I'd like my sport to be done justice to."

With the start time dictated by the tidal fluctuations of the River Thames, last year's race began just before 6pm and secured the BBC a Sunday tea-time audience of 8.9m, the highest for 10 years. This year's starting time is less likely to deliver a sitting audience, and ITV will be happy with half that figure.

In announcing last year that they would be relinquishing the Boat Race, the BBC referred to the "organisers' desire to pursue a highly commercial agenda".

But a spokesperson for the Boat Race claimed this week that the new sponsorship - Aberdeen Asset Management have been exchanged for another financial services company, Xchanging - was of the same order as the old one, and denied that there would be any obvious difference in the level of branding.

"Despite what has been written in at least one paper, there will be no branding on either the rowers or the boats," the spokesperson said. "There will be banners along the course, but probably less than the previous sponsors had."

The Boat Race is on ITV1 tomorrow, from 2.0pm

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