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SPORTVIEW

Coverage barely got off ground

By Bill Griffith, Globe Staff, 4/16/2002

   
 TOP FINISHERS

Men  |  Women  |  Wheelchairs  |

 COVERAGE

Women: Okayo KOs course in debut
Men: Rop puts Kenyans back on top
Runner-up: Ndereba is still first-rate
Ryan: Their absence didn't last long
US runners: Support not there
Beardsley: He returns for more fun
Masters: At 43, Kipkemboi in prime
Wheelchairs: VanDyk wins again
Notebook: Runners kept their cool
The start: Meeting first challenge
First-person: To end, the hard way
Heartbreak Hill: Over the top
SporTView: Coverage lagged
Faces in pack: Miles of smiles

 PHOTO GALLERIES

Memorable moments
During the race
Before the race
Sunday pasta party
Sports & Fitness Expo

No live pictures. That nightmare ranks at the top of the worst-case scenarios in the handbook of Boston Marathon television coverage.

Yet that was just what the producers and directors for Channels 4 and 5 and ESPN2 faced yesterday as the clouds and fog - so helpful to the runners in yesterday's 106th running of the Boston Marathon - grounded the helicopters that are the vital link in relaying the live footage. A helicopter flies over each truck accompanying the leaders in the men's, women's, and wheelchair races, bouncing the signals from the trucks back to the stations.

It was the first time since 1982 - the second year local stations went for complete coverage of the race - that weather kept the helicopters grounded. That year, they got airborne only in time to provide sporadic pictures of the last 6 miles. Back then, troubles with the audio and video feeds were the norm; today, such difficulties are an irritant to viewers and production personnel accustomed to clean feeds.

''We planned on having our own NewsCenter 5 helicopter in the air to provide pictures starting at 9 a.m.,'' said Channel 5 producer Matt Smith. ''We knew early on that it would be grounded, but we just assumed that the pool choppers would fly. They fly in all kinds of weather. Then, when they hadn't taken off by 11, we looked at each other and said, `What are we going to do?'''

The answer was to put contingency plans into operation.

''We had a truck in Framingham and moved another from Lexington to Wellesley,'' said Smith. ''Then, even as we were told the helicopters were still grounded, pictures started coming in during the race. I guess we may have had some renegade helicopter pilots who wouldn't take no for an answer.''

Without other shots to show, viewers got to see Hopkinton clear out, a process that took about 20 minutes and revealed a few numberless runners proving that the tradition of the ''Boston bandit'' isn't dead.

Channel 4 was able to stretch its gimmick of having Uta Pippig run for a while with the back of the pack, then switched to cameraman Rick Macomber, who was stationed at a water stop 6 miles into the race. Anchor Bob Lobel made small talk and had Macomber set the scene. Then the station showed the wheelchair leaders pass, and Dick and Rick Hoyt.

Later, Channel 4 returned to Macomber and, via his camera, viewers got to witness what spectators who lined the course wait to see: first, the lead motorcycles, then the marshal's car, a photo truck, a TV truck, then the lead pack.

Channel 4 news director Peter Brown had trucks in Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, and at Heartbreak Hill ''just in case.''

Channel 5 was blessed to have a reporter in each of the lead vehicles: Ed Harding (men), Jack Harper (women), Mike Dowling (men's wheelchairs), and Kristin Mastroianni (women's wheelchairs).

''We told them to be prepared to do radio-like play-by-play if necessary,'' said Smith, ''and it turned out they had to do that. I thought they did a superb job.''

''My biggest fear was having five people sitting on the anchor desk at the finish with no pictures to talk about,'' said Smith.

Fortunately, that didn't happen as live pictures started to arrive from the lead vehicles. First, the feed of the men's wheelchair race appeared at 12:23, followed by the men's lead pack at 12:43 and the women's leaders at 1:27.

''It seems like the choppers are only a couple of hundred feet over our heads,'' said Dowling, as he reported from alongside men's wheelchair leader (and winner) Ernst VanDyk.

Channel 4 went without commercial breaks from about 1:30 until 2:20. Its ads were aired in a clever split-screen that allowed viewers to follow the race in a box on the left side of the screen.

Channel 4's Brown credited the station's extensive ''spotters network'' for reporting that Catherine Ndereba had dropped to second at Mile 9, and noted that Lobel had predicted a possible course record at the halfway mark.

The men's finish was a thriller; however, the telephoto lens that shoots from the finish line up Boylston Street compressed the distance between winner Rodgers Rop and runner-up Christopher Cheboiboch, making the race seem closer than it was.

After the men's finish, Channel 5 quickly switched to the women's race and soon had an elapsed-time clock in the corner of the screen as eventual winner Margaret Okayo dueled with Ndereba. Channel 4, meanwhile, stayed at the finish line, showing Rop celebrating and showing the third-, fourth-, and fifth-place runners. In the old days, stations were criticized for not following the women's race; this time, Channel 5 may have jumped too soon.

But it was the helicopter pilots who pushed the envelope and hovered in the fog (in conditions that canceled the military flyover) to provide us with a picturebook telecast instead of an illustrated version of the stations' ''Emergency Backup Plan.''

This story ran on page D9 of the Boston Globe on 4/16/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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