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Boston Marathon Course section

Race coverage has come a long way in short time

By Bill Griffith, Globe Staff, 4/13/2001

he Tall Ships were big.

The Marathon may be bigger.

So big that the BAA annually announces that it is the world's second-biggest one-day event in terms of media credentials, trailing only the Super Bowl.

For local TV stations, Marathon Monday is the day they do their longest stretches of live coverage of the year.

When the running boom hit in earnest 25 years ago and Boston Marathon entries increased exponentially, local TV stations scrambled to increase their coverage. The trouble was, there was a lack of marathoning knowledge in the media, and the reporting was, by today's standards, terrible.

It used to be that the media's heavy hitters could hide their lack of knowledge by panning the event. To wit: ''You know it's spring when the saps start running in the marathon.''

How times have changed.

Marathoners say there's nothing like experience in training for their sport.

The same holds true for covering it, and Boston TV stations have become experts by covering the distance so often and so well that TV coordinators from other major marathons come to Boston to study how Boston's stations get the job done.

Respect has been earned the old-fashioned way. Linda Polach has been coordinating Channel 5's coverage for more than 20 years. Channel 4 news director Peter Brown will be handling his 19th marathon. Frank Shorr has been Channel 7's producer for Marathon coverage since 1995.

You'll find differences in the coverage. Channels 4 and 5 are part of the TV pool, sharing cameras and the live feed with ESPN. Channel 7 has chosen to go it alone in recent years and will throw nearly its entire staff into covering the race as a news event, spicing the live shots with prepared features. One thing they have in common: All three local stations will kick off their coverage at 5 a.m.

Channel 5 will go live from 9 to 3 p.m. Channel 4 will be all-Marathon from 11 until 4 p.m. ''The last hour and a half, after the women's winner finishes, is the most fun,'' said Brown. ''That's when you see the average joes, your neighbors. We get some great stories then. It was Brown who made the call to drop commercial breaks for 45 minutes as the station stayed with last April's compelling men's and women's races. The fear, of course, is that when a station breaks, viewers click elsewhere in search of continuing coverage.

In that sense, the race is every bit as much a competition among the covering stations, as well.

The pool concept originally was seen as a weakness in Boston's coverage - there being no official Marathon station. ''Instead, it's become a positive,'' said Jack Fleming, the BAA's nonpareil director of communications. ''Channels 4 and 5 contribute considerable resources to the pool, then commit extraordinary additional efforts in competing with each other.''

The competition often leads to innovation. Last year, Channel 4 employed a three-pronged approach, showing separate feeds in three boxes on the screen.

The BAA, in conjunction with SFX, has 23 cameras for the pool coverage. They provide a produced feed from the seven cameras at the starting line, but ESPN and Channels 4 and 5 take the raw BAA/SFX feeds from the on-course fixed cameras and cameras with the lead vehicles - men's, women's, and wheelchairs - plus aerial shots from the helicopters and from a loose motorcycle on the course.

''Technology - both analog and digital - has improved so much over the past five years that the pictures are sensational,'' said Fleming. ''The pool people had talked about switching to all-digital transmissions this year, but we're going to wind up just testing digital technology for this race and hope to switch to it next year.'' Digital technology will require building some new towers along the Hopkinton-to-Boston route - either temporary or permanent - to eliminate some dead spots.

There is always one big fear with analog technology. If the weather keeps the helicopters from flying, there won't be as many pictures for the pool to receive because the feed bounces from the camera to the helicopters to the Prudential Building (a better location than primary sponsor John Hancock's tower) and then down to the production trucks.

If a bad-weather situation were to develop, Boston's stations would be able to cope.

''Expect the unexpected,'' said Polach, who has been doing special projects and big events for the past 20 years and has veteran producers Don Makson and Matt Smith on the job. ''Every year there's some new challenge. It can be a great finish, the weather, [eight-time wheelchair winner] Jean Driscoll tipping over, Bill Rodgers getting dehydrated. Our coverage goes smoothly because we've done it for a while. Technologically, it's the most complex thing we do all year.''

On Patriots Day, Boston is the place to be if you're in the TV business. Alan Miller, former executive sports producer at Channel 4 (he now works for Boston Bureau Productions) is returning on a freelance basis to coordinate coverage. It's his 13th year of working the Marathon. Why?

''It's a uniquely Boston event.''

And promises to be again for the 105th time.

This story ran on page 7 of the Boston Globe on 4/13/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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