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NBC's marathon coverage was pitiful

August 25, 2008 - Erik Brown
In 1968, NBC broke away from their coverage of an old AFL football game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders with less than two minutes remaining in the game to broadcast the movie Heidi. At that point, the Jets were leading 32 – 29. The television audience never saw the Raiders score two touchdowns in the final two minutes to win the game 43 – 32. The “Heidi Game” as it’s come to be known, proved to be a watershed moment in sports broadcasting. The uproar from the football audience prompted NBC to issue an apology, and it led the NFL to insert language into its TV contracts guaranteeing that games would be shown in their entirety to local markets.
Running enthusiasts across the country, particularly in our region and, I’m guessing, in Rochester Hills, Michigan can relate to the frustration felt by NBC’s football audience on that night so long ago.
The powers that be at NBC would probably be surprised to learn that their coverage of the men’s marathon in Beijing left me feeling frustrated and disappointed. After all, NBC devoted about 2 hours and 15 minutes (before subtracting out the minutes used for commercial breaks) to their coverage of the event. But the quality of their coverage was pitiful, and like an instant replay of their infamous Heidi Game, they broke away from the race too soon.
Almost completely lost on NBC was the fact that there were three Americans in the race. You could argue that they did a respectable job of covering Ryan Hall, although the bio piece they ran on him should have been shown before the race began so that it wouldn’t interfere with their coverage of the actual event. On the other hand, they paid scant attention to Dathan Ritzenhein, and completely ignored Brian Sell. Sell never once appeared on my television screen. Rubbing salt in the wound, NBC broke away from their marathon coverage mere minutes before Brian entered the “Bird’s Nest” without a word about his projected finish – to talk about men’s platform diving that didn’t even begin until after Sell was finished.
NBC showed an unmistakable mindset that their viewers cared only about the lead pack. It’s understandable that the leaders would get the vast majority of the broadcast coverage. But instead of talking only about the runners we could plainly see, they could have and should have, told us what was going on with other runners further back – especially the Americans!
Every time the lead pack went by a mile marker, the chip timing technology would begin listing the runners behind them by place and elapsed time. And, practically every time this listing began, NBC went to a commercial break. Imagine watching a football game and never getting to see more than just a few scores from other games displayed on your screen.
There was one very good broadcast segment showing Ritz and Hall that gave us an update on where they were and how they looked. But it begs the question, if NBC could show us that, why not a similar update on Brian Sell? Why not several such updates?
NBC’s coverage of the women’s marathon was similarly bad. Viewers weren’t told anything about Magdelena Lewey Boulet dropping out of the race, and the NBC crew seemed almost annoyed that the relatively slow early pace resulted in the lead pack being rather large well into the race. In my mind, that made the race more interesting, not less.
Here is a link to a good recap of the American men’s performances in the Olympic marathon, courtesy of Runners World, and another to a video interview of Brian shortly after the race, and, with thanks to Rob Egan at WVAM for sending me the link, here is another article that shows that Brian still had his sense of humor after his race in Beijing.

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