The BBC’s Boat Race Broadcast: Credit where it’s Due

John Snagge, complete with Leander cap, the 'Voice of the Boat Race' between 1931 and 1980. He was never required to appear with a music hall comedian.
John Snagge, complete with Leander cap, the ‘Voice of the Boat Race’ between 1931 and 1980. He was never required to appear with a music hall comedian.

1 April 2016

Tim Koch argues that the unfortunate segments involving Seann Walsh in the BBC’s Boat Race programme should not distract from the excellent overall coverage provided by BBC Sport.

C.P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian newspaper from 1872 to 1929, said of television: ‘The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it’. The BBC, for all its merits, sometimes seems intent in proving him right. As ‘old-fashioned’ media’ declines in the digital age, broadcast television and printed newspapers desperately attempt to attract the ‘youth demographic’ or, if not those exactly young, at least those not in danger of  keeling over in the next few months. While this is understandable (even ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ is now down with the kids and has Twitter and Instagram accounts) this appeal to the young seems to be  attempted largely by ‘dumbing down’ anything that may be considered a bit too clever or a bit too middle-class.

Broadcasting the Boat Race on radio, 1928.
Broadcasting the Boat Race on radio, 1928.

Thus, to widen the appeal of the boring old Boat Race, I would imagine that the BBC’s Head of Asininity (or similar) effectively made BBC Sport include someone like Seann Walsh in their coverage. Unfortunately, he is a comedian who knows nothing about rowing (fair enough) but who was crass and unfunny (not fair enough). To give a flavour of Walsh’s contribution, he made a joke that relied on the original and hilarious pun whereby ‘cox’ sounds like a vulgar term for the membrum virile. It was a strange situation whereby someone invited onto a sports programme should then insult the followers of that sport. Walsh said of the spectators at Hammersmith, ‘I’ve never seen so many middle-class people in my life. It’s crazy.’ In his world, a lot of middle-class people in one place is clearly ‘a bad thing’. Also, has a stand-up from Brighton really never seen large numbers of middle-class people together? The man is clearly not an observational comedian. If the BBC had broadcast someone at a soccer ground saying ‘I know nothing about football but I have never seen so many working-class people in my life’, there would be a meltdown of social media channels.

The first television broadcast of the Boat Race was in 1938. This shows a TV camera in action in 1949.
The first television broadcast of the Boat Race was in 1938. This shows a TV camera in action in 1949.

This is not the first time that someone at the BBC has decided that a dull old waterborne event should be ‘sexed up’. The coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee River Pageant of 2012 was widely criticised when it was decided not to employ presenters, who would bore people by talking knowledgeably about the flotilla of 670 boats on the river. Famously, the broadcast included a ‘fashion expert’ who said that the Duchess of Cambridge’s hat was made by the same milliner who ‘made Nelson’s hat for Waterloo’. To be fair, interviewees can get things wrong but the mistake went uncorrected by the interviewer, either because they did not know it was wrong or because it is feared that correcting ignorance will alienate the ignorant.

Legendary British sports commentator, Frank Bough, broadcasting from the Boat Race start sometime in the 1970s. Picture: Roger Clark.
Legendary British sports commentator, Frank Bough, broadcasting from the Boat Race start sometime in the 1970s. Picture: Roger Clark.

It is particularly unfortunate that the silly episode with Walsh has distracted attention from all those professionals at BBC Sport who did such a brilliant job making a complex, live two-and-a-half hour programme happen: the technicians, the sports production staff and the presenters, including Clare Balding, Matthew Pinsent and poor Helen Skelton who, I am sure, had nothing to do with choosing Walsh to appear. Alan Tyers, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said that Walsh came across as a ‘sneering malcontent’ but nicely summed-up the rest of the BBC coverage thus:

……. rowing can offer any number of articulate pundits, and [the program] was happy to let them discuss the ins and outs without dumbing them down……. Coverage of the Boat Races in recent years has tended to feature too many of those soft-soapy features to which broadcasters are drawn when worried the audience will turn off if things get too technical or too posh. But this year, the BBC seemed keener to play up the elite sport angle rather than the human interest. This increased confidence in the product worked, the pre-recorded features and the punditry combining to give an insight into the freakish dedication of these sportspeople, whose preparation and lifestyle are amateur in name only….. Balding and her team walked well the line between remaining respectful of this august fixture while acknowledging that sport on TV is at least partially a branch of show business……

Of course, people have been saying that the BBC is not as good as it once was, since radio announcers ceased to have to wear dinner jackets in the evening. There was no ‘golden age of television’ but there was a time when most BBC programmes assumed that their viewers were reasonably intelligent people with a reasonable attention span.

Barry Davies (a veteran multi-sport presenter, including commentating on the Boat Race between 1993 and 2004) and Matthew Pinsent, pictured filming an insert for the 2015 Boat Race coverage. As usual, both did fine work during this year’s broadcast.
Barry Davies (a veteran multi-sport presenter, including commentating on the Boat Race between 1993 and 2004) and Matthew Pinsent, pictured filming an insert for the 2015 Boat Race coverage. As usual, both did fine work during this year’s broadcast.

Perhaps the quality press can be relied on? The Financial Times is an international daily newspaper with a huge influence and is the first choice reading of many politicians, bankers and other powerful people. While its reporting on politics and economics may be respected, it seems that its rowing coverage cannot.

The Financial Times, 26 March 2016. The crew and nationalities referred to are from the 2012 crew. ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ wrote about better times for rowing journalism in a post last February. https://heartheboatsing.com/2016/02/25/a-look-back-at-newspapers-of-old-and-their-rowing-correspondents/
The Financial Times, 26 March 2016. The crew and nationalities referred to are from the 2012 race. ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ wrote about better times for rowing journalism in a post last February.

 

Chris Dodd, Hélène Rémond and Tim Koch, the HTBS Boat Race reporting team, part of a small group fighting to maintain the standards of rowing reporting. All three are driven by two important journalistic credos: ‘Comment is free but the facts are sacred’ and ‘The bar is free and the buffet is open’.
Chris Dodd, Hélène Rémond and Tim Koch, the HTBS Boat Race reporting team, part of a small group fighting to maintain the standards of rowing reporting. All three are driven by two important journalistic credos: ‘Comment is free but the facts are sacred’ and ‘The bar is free and the buffet is open’.

For those who can access the BBC iPlayer, the programme is available to view again ‘on demand’ for the next four weeks. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b075bxxw/the-boat-race-the-162nd-boat-race

4 comments

  1. Although the Internet tells me that both words are Latin, perhaps the question should be, does any good come of it?

  2. A serious question about the television coverage is why is Isis vs Goldie ignored? I assume Osiris/Blondie is also overlooked but I didn’t see that part of the programme.

  3. Daniel,

    Below is a response that I made to a similar comment on 25 October 2015.

    I think we (‘the rowing community’) should be grateful for what we get as far as TV coverage of the Boat Race is concerned. Remember, the BBC has to produce two-and-a-half hours of television that must entertain the vast majority of the audience who have no connection to, knowledge of or (usually) interest in the sport of rowing. In the past the Boat Race was more often than not a race to Hammersmith and then a procession to the finish with the poor old TV commentators desperately trying to make it sound exciting. With the arrival of sponsorship and a more professional approach, crews nowadays are much fitter – but this simply means that the ‘procession’ may start later in the race (2003 and the ‘one foot’ verdict excepted). Two boats rowing for up to twenty minutes will often not be constantly riveting even for those of us who claim knowledge of the subtleties of the event and empathy with the demands placed on the participants. Most of the ‘general public’ has an interest in the day simply because of tradition of ‘The Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race’. The moving of the women’s race to the Tideway has been a great success because it brings a new dimension to an old institution. Expecting the same interest to be given to another couple of races on top of the two in the ‘main event’ is asking too much of the general audience. Agreed that some of the ‘padding’ in the Boat Race television coverage can grate on us purists but much of it can educate and entertain the wider world about our minority sport.

    Tim.

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