May 2020 Issue 430

The Latest in Road Running for Race Directors and Industry Professionals

NBC’s Marathon Trials Telecast Fails to Inspire

By Dave Kayser

As the number of U.S. marathoners qualifying to participate in the Olympic Marathon Trials grew and grew over the past year, various running-related news sites began picking up on the story, especially highlighting the resurgence of elite women marathoners and the successes of women pushing to qualify for the event. Stories were told of women encouraging each other via social media and helping each other in the closing miles of races to record a qualifying time and achieve their dream. As the day of the trials drew near, anticipation grew on how NBC would handle the issue and how they might help celebrate the achievements of the over 600 qualifiers. Unfortunately, they basically ignored the issue and instead delivered a poorly covered race, little, if any, pertinent reporting on the whys and hows of the many athletes qualifying for the event and producing a surprisingly inept telecast for a network that has covered so many other major sporting events so well.

Instead, interested viewers who well understood the nuances of marathoning were first informed of the “most challenging course I’ve ever seen” according to on-air announcers sans any elevations to actually illustrate that difficulty, followed by a cursory overview of the Vaporfly shoe issue and the extensive aid station set-up. After that was a three-hour show I likened to a music video on meth that catered to the supposed short attention of their audience - a quick shot of the men’s and women’s races, a bit of chit-chat among the three male announcers, a quick cut to one of the lead vehicles that led to either garbled communications or a very rushed report, three minutes of commercials and repeat ad nauseum. For fans of marathoning it was distasteful, and many a casual viewer must have thought that both the sport and the actual event were simply boring.

Could the importance of the occasion to the larger world of U.S. running been better covered? The New York Times, which admittedly has ample resources and unequaled reporting chops but who put together a rather thin daily Sports section, nevertheless easily outdistanced NBC in covering the event. They contacted nearly two-thirds of the qualifiers to get a handle on why the field grew to a near unimaginable size. Their reporters gathered many stories on how the runners, especially on the women’s side, were able to rise above the demands of their jobs, child rearing and other difficulties of everyday living, dispel doubts on their ability to reach the qualifying standard and feel the satisfaction of their success. Their resulting story was able to illuminate readers on what brought on the rise of qualifiers, the changes in the sport that assisted them and how the effort enriched their lives. Well-researched charts and graphs helped illustrate the many points put forth in print. NBC could have done something similar, but didn’t.

The dramatic change in U.S elite marathoning was given but a cursory mention by NBC. Rather, time was given to Ato Bolden assessing the chances of the U.S. sprinters and field event specialists at the (at the time) upcoming Summer Games. Even more frustrating was the onslaught of commercials that destroyed any semblance of the rhythms that any marathon exhibits. The breaks came at five to ten minute intervals and lasted a minimum of three minutes, and with the many ads publicizing NBC’s upcoming coverage of the Summer Games one got the sense that NBC saw the Trials as a giant marketing opportunity. The network certainly has to pay its bills, but was it necessary to dedicate nearly half of the time to commercials and obviate the event that was allegedly being covered?

One would think that the 444 high-achieving women running the race would have impelled the announcers to do a similar job, but it seemed a sad example of the good ol’ boy club sliding through with the least amount of effort possible. To add further insult, Deena Kastor, the only female NBC announcer allowed into the proceedings, was given precious little air time. When she was allowed to talk, her brief statements showed extensive preparation and understanding of the significance of the event for women’s running, but her segments were either marred by technical difficulties or a simple lack of air time being given to her. In one segment, she gave more information on Aliphine Tuliamuk, who had been leading the race for quite some time, than had been offered by the main announcers. Certainly nothing was conveyed that might have inspired the next generation of runners.

Much of the so-called race coverage catered to the aforementioned short attention span of the average viewer, with a typical segment consisting of a shot of the leader of the men’s race, then the women’s, followed by an aerial view of the relit Olympic torch, a quick look at Bernard Lagat, and then the women’s lead pack. The result was viewers getting little sense of how the two races were unfolding, movement and changes within the pack, how the wind was affecting the runners, who was getting left behind, and the other tidbits of information that can enliven coverage. Also contributing to the complete lack of race flow was the unfortunate but unavoidable 12-minute break for a presidential news conference starting at 1:52 p.m.

Most disturbing was the complete lack of coverage of the break-up of the women’s lead pack. Only reading print reports after the race was I able to discern what actually happened. It is an unfortunate circumstance in many marathon telecasts, but oftentimes amends are made by showing replays minutes after a dramatic break to give the viewer an understanding of what had just occurred. Here, it was simply explained with “Tuliamuk has moved into the lead” well past the time it actually occurred.

The use of split screen technology to simultaneously show the men’s and women’s races was sporadic, and at times it appeared the producer was using the device for the first time, switching back and forth at short intervals, which became more a distraction than a benefit.

The uninterrupted time spent on post-race interviews was well spent, as the cameras captured the true joy of each team member’s accomplishments. Lewis Johnson’s easily digested questions to the team members were perfect, as they allowed the grinning and ecstatic runners to convey their glee to the audience. And Molly Seidel’s “I can’t believe this is happening” statement was a perfect ending to an otherwise lackluster viewing experience.

With vast stretches of the course showing few if any spectators, it is plainly obvious that marathoning is not a mainstream spectator sport in the U.S., which is of no surprise to Road Race Management readers. So why attempt to create a telecast that is of little or no interest to the general public and discourages true fans from tuning in? Why not focus on the event itself instead of endlessly promoting another network venture and populate the telecast with experts like the incisive and informative Toni Reavis to add real heft to the production? If resources were used to adequately research the competitors beforehand, scour the course for dramatic camera shots and attempt to make the program a first-hand glimpse at the incredibly hard work that goes into running a marathon, perhaps that would be a program worth watching.

Dave Kayser worked for the National Park Service for over 30 years before turning his full attention to writing for Road Race Management Newsletter and collecting old running shoes. He started his running career in 1966 and currently trains exclusively on his three bikes.

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