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Boston Marathon Course section

Channel 7 makes waves jumping out of pool

By Howard Manly, Globe Staff, 4/14/2000

hannel 7, which is known for its noisy hype, has been airing promotions touting its ''start-to-finish'' live coverage of the Boston Marathon.

The only problem with the boast is that it's not true.

While sport anchor Gene Lavanchy is able to provide highlights and updates, the station is not allowed to air live footage of the race.

In fact, the station won't be able to broadcast reports on the race during the critical time between 2-2:30 p.m. when the elite runners are expected to finish. The station's reports will be limited to two 28-second spots at 1:28 p.m. and 1:58 p.m. and three minutes of highlights during the evening newscasts.

Channel 7's coverage will be a far cry from what Lavanchy claims in his Marathon promotions.

The reason for the gap between the hype and reality is simple: money. Faced with dwindling ratings and low advertising revenues from its past Marathon coverage, the station declined to pay the estimated $75,000 fee to share television pool footage and is thus prohibited from using live shots of one of the most important sports events of the year in Boston.

''They will not have start-to-finish coverage,'' said Boston Athletic Association spokesman Jack Fleming. ''They are not going to be able to capture what's happening in terms of the competition. The station's promotions are a bit misleading.''

The station stands by it promos.

''Channel 7 recognizes the scope of the 104th Boston Marathon,'' said spokeswoman Ro Dooley. ''We plan to dedicate the bulk of [our] resources to aggressive and comprehensive coverage with complete highlights in all newscasts. And we do plan to do live reports all day long in regularly scheduled programming. However, we decided to offer viewers alternative programming to the uninterrupted Marathon coverage available on other stations.

''We're promoting live coverage of all the Marathon highlights from start to finish, and that's what we'll deliver.''

Channel 7's decision in January to eliminate its traditional coverage is not mentioned in its promotions. Nor is the fact that the station had given verbal commitments for months that it would contribute to the pool, only to pull out virtually at the last minute, causing the BAA (which sells the national feed to ESPN2) and Channels 4 and 5 to shell out an additional $35,000 apiece to make up the difference.

''They are masters of promotion [at Channel 7],'' said Linda Polach, executive editor at Channel 5. ''They do a very good job of promoting themselves, but it doesn't necessarily match what will be on the air. They won't have any access to the lead runners. The race among the elite men and women can change moment-by-moment, frame-by-frame. All of that material is from the pool.''

Part of the explanation can be found in Channel 7's dismal ratings numbers. Last year, Channel 5 earned a 6.8 rating and 21 share, Channel 4 pulled a 4.7 rating and 14 share, and Channel 7 came in a distant third with a 2.6 rating and 8 share. The difference between Channels 5 and 7 was about 92,000 households.

The gap was more pronounced during the period between noon and 3 p.m. During that time, Channel 5 earned an 8.8 rating while Channel 4 had a 6 and Channel 7 managed only a 2.9. That is nearly 130,000 households fewer than Channel 5, or 260,000 viewers.

While each station claimed to provide the most comprehensive coverage, one thing is clear: Fewer people watched Channel 7 last year.

Channel 7's decision to pull out is not without merit. ''It's really a one-station event,'' said one former local news director. ''Channel 5 gets the bulk of the viewers, and the other two stations must split the rest.''

There's only so much out there for the audience. If you are the general manager of a station, you have to ask yourself, ''Is it really worth it?''

The total costs to Channels 4 and 5 could run as high as $225,000. The pool fee is paid to SFX, a television production company that will employ four helicopters and 27 cameras to provide start-to-finish coverage. Advertising revenue more than pays for the stations' costs. Both are expected to bill as much as $400,000 in advertising sales.

Given the expense, however, Channels 4 and 5 vow to protect their investment by monitoring Channel 7's coverage. ''We will protect what we paid deeply for,'' said Polach.

For Fleming, the commitment to the Marathon by Channels 4 and 5 is worth the money. ''They realize that the Boston Marathon is part of the community,'' he said.

Both stations have added interesting features to their coverage.

Channel 5, for example, will profile five non-elite athletes during the race. ''The Marathon is one chance we get as a station to cover something positive,'' said Polach. ''Most of the time we are out covering fires or disasters. But the Marathon is filled with stories of individual triumph.''

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