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Channels 4 and 5 go to great lengths in coverage

By Bill Griffith, Globe Staff, 4/18/2003

As the bumper sticker says, "Think Globally, Act Locally."

It seems to describe the way Channels 4 and 5 plan to go about covering Monday's 107th running of the Boston Marathon.

The race certainly thinks globally, with sponsor John Hancock bringing in an array of the world's top marathoners. Their accomplishments are covered by the cameras and reporters all along the 26 miles 385 yards from Hopkinton to the finish line in the shadow of the Hancock Tower.

But there also are hundreds of compelling "local" tales among the estimated field of 20,000. And it's some of these people and their stories that the local channels hope will keep us watching both before the wheelchairs roll away from Hopkinton on Route 135 at 11:45 a.m. and again after the women's winner is crowned and interviewed just before 2:30 p.m.

Continuing their own marathon tradition (and ratings competition) that dates to 1982, two Boston stations devote their day to race coverage (Channel 7 originally was part of the consortium but now covers the race as part of its news coverage). Officially, Channel 5 is on the air from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., will come back with the news at 5 p.m., and devote "Chronicle" at 7:30 p.m. to race stories. Channel 4 will be on the air from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., though Dan Rea will have reports from Hopkinton starting at 5 a.m. ESPN2 airs the race from 11:55 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (with provisions to go longer if developments warrant). WBZ radio goes live with race coverage at 11 a.m. until the women's winner is determined, but its morning news show originates from Hopkinton with its mobile newsroom.

The TV stations all pick up the pool coverage provided by Clear Channel Entertainment, pictures that will be seen in 196 countries plus in 179 countries on the US Armed Forces Network. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a country that doesn't carry the race in one form or another," said Clear Channel vice president Dennis Spencer.

Clear Channel has cameras at the start and finish, in the lead vehicles with the men's, women's, and wheelchair races, and overhead in the helicopters that relay signals to Boston. The local stations - and ESPN - all augment that feed with cameras of their own.

A year ago, Channel 5 won the local "ratings race" in the noon-3 p.m. segment with a 7.8 rating (22 share); Channel 4 posted a 5.6 (16 share).

The "main feed" of last year's race was minimal after the helicopters were grounded by fog and low clouds until the late stages of the race. That's when the knowledge amassed over years of coverage paid dividends with TV reporters doing radio-style play-by-play from the lead vehicles and the stations making heavy use of their cameras positioned along the course.

Later in the day, pilots got clearance to fly at "their own discretion," and showed some race-day skills of their own in getting airborne and in position.

The stations making up the pool coverage had plans to implement digital coverage of the race this spring, relaying the signals through a series of "temporary towers" for the first 16 miles. (Once the race reaches the 18-mile mark, signals can go direct to receivers in the Back Bay.) However, the bad winter weather delayed a three-day comprehensive trial run of the system until late March. In addition, the cost of the change was a bit much for station budgets already affected by commercial-free war coverage.

Clear Channel's Susan Treut, who has been producing the pool feed "for at least 13 years" is optimistic the switch to digital coverage will come next year. "But we'll still have at least one helicopter flying to provide aerial shots," she said.

As always, experts will abound.

That goes back to the early years of full-race coverage when the stations had their own race to line up analysts. Now each outlet has a cadre of veteran marathon reporters and experts. Frank Shorter and Kathrine Switzer have been with Channel 4 sports director Bob Lobel for years. This year, they're joined by Toni Reavis and eight-time Boston women's wheelchair champ Jean Driscoll, allowing Shorter to report from out on the course. At Channel 5, anchors Mike Lynch and Natalie Jacobson will be joined by Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Marty Liquori, and former Los Angeles Marathon wheelchair champion Bob Molinatti.

Channel 5's Matt Smith and Don Makson, in their second year as executive producers of the station's marathon coverage, promise some new twists, too.

Last year, Susan Wornick was at the back of the pack with an eyeglass camera and microphone to catch the camaraderie of the race. She'll do the same this year.

Channel 4 news director Peter Brown was holding back on some of the surprises he has planned. "Tell you Sunday," he said, but one of the innovations the station tried a year ago will be back. During the scramble for photos without the helicopters available, Lobel was talking on the air with cameraman Kent Earle at the water station at the 6-mile mark. Earle, a new dad, will be back this year and expects to be on the receiving end of Lobel's barbs as they air his reports.

As always, Channel 4 will rely on its traditional "Spotters Network" of 70 people along the course to alert producers if something unusual happens.

You also can follow the race on the Internet. Nationally respected track and field writers James O'Brien and Barbara Huebner will write "running" accounts of the race from the Copley Plaza press room, where they'll have a commercial-free feed of the race, plus all the checkpoint updates.

The Boston Athletic Association website ( also makes it possible to track individual runners through the chip technology that has revolutionized marathon timing and policing.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is

This story ran on page F9 of the Boston Globe on 4/18/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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