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Another Marathon dropout

The Boston Marathon will have a different look next year, not for the runners, but for those watching on television.

Channel 5, which had covered the race live from start to finish for more than two decades, won't be going the distance in 2007. The Marathon, at one time covered by the three big local stations, will be shown this year only on Channel 4 and the cable station Versus.

Natalie Jacobson, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and the Channel 5 crew will no longer offer wall-to-wall coverage, the station announced this week. Bill Fine, WCVB-TV's general manager, informed the BAA of the decision Wednesday, and announced it to his staff the next day.

"This was probably the toughest decision outside of personnel decisions I would ever have to make, but at the end of the day it was the right one," said Fine.

"The decline in advertising has certainly made us look more carefully at how we spend and on what. And even though we're No. 1 in ratings for the Marathon, those have decreased over time, and the arrows are going in the wrong direction."

The race has become more of a spectator event, he said.

"We figured out that people would rather see it in person; they're not watching it on television, not the way they used to," said Fine.

Channel 7 ended its wall-to-wall coverage about 10 years ago.

Channel 4's general manager, Ed Piette, who joined the station in June, hasn't been focusing on the race. "We just got out of the November sweeps, we're working on the Boston Pops holiday concert, and we're also in preparation for First Night, so [the Marathon] wasn't necessarily on my radar yet," he said. "It's kind of moved up on the priority list, but our hands were already full."

He said airing the Marathon on just one local station should attract a larger audience, but the general audience could be smaller than usual because the start has been moved from noon to 10 a.m.

"I know what a big deal the Marathon is in Boston, and how it plays nationally," said Piette. "So to me it's kind of disturbing news that [Channel 5] would back away from it. I was stunned."

Channel 5 isn't quitting on the race completely.

"We're still going to cover it aggressively," said Fine. "We had a wonderful time working with the BAA, but at this point in time we can't commit to a full day's coverage like we used to in the past."

Guy Morse, executive director of the BAA, was displeased with Channel 5's decision. The stations, he said, shared the cost of production with the BAA.

"We might have to get more creative and find ways to make it more cost-efficient," Morse said.

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