IMG Media, NBC race to success for marathon coverage

By Ken Kerschbaumer

The New York City Marathon is one of those rare TV events: something that is incredibly important to the local community but also impacts people around the world. “It is probably the iconic New York sporting event,” says David Hyman, WNBC New York VP for programming and creative services. “It’s something that brings New Yorkers out, especially on a beautiful warm day. And sitting in the bleachers at the finish line and seeing the amazing determination of participants really exemplifies the every man aspect of it.”

The massive coverage the race received this year involved everyone from WNBC New York to IMG Media, and MediaZone, the latter two working together on an innovative broadband product that lets race fans around the world track their favorite racer.

Hyman says WNBC begins promoting its coverage with a vengeance a month ahead of the race. And on race day it turns some its top on-air talent over to IMG Media who produces the race coverage for WNBC and beyond. “It’s such a mammoth production that even if we had the desire we couldn’t do it,” adds Hyman. “So we try to tell the local stories because even though we’re the flagship NBC station we’re still, at our heart, a local TV station.”

It’s up to IMG Media, with the help of NEP Broadcasting, total RF and a fleet of Smart Cars, two motorcycles, two pick-up trucks, two choppers and a lot of faith in RF technology, to help marathon fans around the globe keep on top of the event via television and the Internet.

Gary Critchlow, IMG Media VP Production, oversaw the coverage that becomes a co-ordination challenge involving RF wireless frequencies, spotters keeping track of racers, and the influx of massive amounts of racer data passing through the system to Vizrt graphics devices and to the Web.

Once the race begins cameras mounted on the motorcycles, trucks and choppers keep track of the race action. But handheld cameras do play a role. Before the race even starts the crew is underway using Sony cameras to cover the action at the staging area in Staten Island.

“We don’t use any wireless cameras out there because the RF environment is really bad and difficult,” says Critchlow.

While the vast number of New Yorkers who come out to see the race in person are there to see the 37,000 amateur marathoners the TV coverage focuses primarily on the men’s and women’s races at the front of the field. A pickup truck and motorcycle are each dedicated to the men’s and women’s races with the a third motorcycle unit on hand to cover the wheelchair race and then return to the race to follow side stories or action at the back of the pack of the men’s or women’s race.

“We work in conjunction with RoadRunners in meeting after meeting to develop stories and ideas of what message and stories they want to project to the world,” says Critchlow.

Each year one of the more memorable televised shots in sports is the mass of humanity running the New York City marathon as 37,000 runners cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn. Those dramatic shots rely on choppers and runners enter Bay Ridge, Brooklyn rooftop cameras are employed. As the race passes through Queens it’s up to cameras on top of the Citicorp building to capture the vast crowd shots and it isn’t until the race hits First Avenue that handheld cameras are used. Two curbside Sony cameras at 66th Street and a camera at 77th Street used to capture images of runners curb to curb heading down the street complement the coverage. Sony cameras on Jibs are located near Columbus Circle to get sweeping shots of runners heading down the backstretch while six handhelds are located at the finish line.

The video is only one portion of the production. A spotting and graphics trailer with Vizrt gear was used to pull in race information from 32 spotters on bikes with chest pack walkie talkies to help keep three graphics coordinators on top of the ticker and the men’s and women’s races. A datastream was also pulled in from mats every 5 kilometers that relayed data on racer locations with the help of small RFID chips on the runners.

That data also played a crucial role online where friends and family of racers could keep track of their favorite runners. MediaZone helped with the technical backbone, letting visitors to the site see racers via Web cams located at three points in the race. A sound and message popped up on screen to give visitors to the site a heads up that their favorite runner was passing the camera within three or five minutes. Data was sent via a socket connection and the Internet from Mika Timing, the timing and scoring company contracted for the event.

“We collected data from 20K, 30K, and 40K mats which are about a mile before each of our RunnerCams,” says Lise Rubarth, MediaZone project manager. “Video was sent via microwave and fiber from the Empire State Building to our hub and then via Vyvx to MediaOne in San Francisco where it was streamed out.”

With the 2006 New York City Marathon over the team now turns its sights on 2007 for what promises to be a very special race weekend. The U.S. marathon Olympic trials are expected to take place in Central Park on the day before the New York City Marathon, giving an added luster to an already important weekend.

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