So, the big news is that the New York City Marathon is going to be televised live for the first time since 1993. It will air on ESPN2 from 9:00 AM to 12:30 PM EST on Sunday, November 3 and we are also promised a national highlights show on ABC from 4:00-6:00 PM (I’ll be watching this because I don’t have cable). This was supposed to happen last fall, but hurricane Sandy, of course, intervened. Running fans and those who want to create more running fans are excited because an initial press conference with hosts John Anderson and Hannah Storm indicated that they, at least, were serious about presenting the marathon as an elite sporting event and appeared to be familiar with the athletes involved. According to a report of the press conference on the running website Letsrun, Hannah Storm chimed in that Stanley Biwott was her “x factor.” Everyone was also very excited to find out that Anderson is a long-time subscriber to Track and Field News. Race coverage will include thirty six cameras, three helicopters, six motorcycles, and a liberal use of split screen technology. Another saving grace is that the New York City Marathon is not on Universal Sports or NBC, so Tom Hammond will not be anywhere near the broadcast. I have to admit that I am feeling optimistic. I remember religiously watching the New York City Marathon in the 1980s, when it was first broadcast to cover Alberto Salazar’s world record (sort of) run in 1981 – a mix of examining Salazar’s splits and a focus on the front runners, as well as a liberal dose of human interest stories, helped to fuel the running boom and also fostered mass-participation in the populist endeavor of marathoning. As the years went by, however, the balance between elite coverage and “up close and personal” reports started to skew to the back of the pack. I noticed today when looking through a 2012 issue of Running Times, that one of the letters addressed the announcement that the marathon would be televised in 2012. The letter writer was optimistic, but urged that it be covered like any other professional sporting event: “My complaint with past marathon shows is that invariably the producers focus on all the ‘other stories’ of runners overcoming addiction or some other physical ailment, or raising money for a charity, or running while dressed as a gorilla.”(Letter of Brian Schafer, Running Times, August 2012, page 6) It is clear that running fans want less special interest stories and more race coverage
It is also clear that producers don’t believe that television audiences can be captured merely through compelling competition. Already, there are some ominous signs. A prerace behind the scenes show, “On The Run,” airing during race week will include features on charity runners, a 93-year old aiming to become the oldest New York Marathon finisher, and a runner who uses the marathon to get in shape for the world of competitive eating. (http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/run-karla-run/2013/oct/30/how-watch-2013-ing-new-york-city-marathon/)
I think what we are going to see is a tug-of-war between Anderson and Storm’s efforts to commentate as if they were at a major professional sporting event – which they are – and the producers’ efforts to please advertisers by pumping personal interest stories. Much of the success of the coverage will probably depend on the professional athletes themselves. A compelling fast race with numerous lead changes, some great tactical moves, and some blowups is probably the ideal way to keep an audience. If the race transpires as it did in 1983 when Rod Dixon chased down Geoff Smith in the final meters in the rain, human interest stories will probably not be necessary. Unfortunately, television has a rather bad track record when it comes to distance racing. It is par for the course that a critical break in a race will be made during a commercial or during an “up close and personal” segment. It doesn’t just sometimes happen, it almost always happens. That is why I am trying not to get too excited. There are some good indications that this time could be different, certainly the commentators will be a fresh of breath air; but, there are some signs that this could be merely a continuation of the same hackneyed, frustrating coverage that probably drove viewers away in the early 1990s. Regardless, I will be watching some running this upcoming Sunday.