ESPN focused on storytelling for NYC Marathon telecast
Televising a New York City Marathon always requires a deft balance between covering a footrace and capturing all that surrounds it.
But this time, the task is even more complicated, and for the first time in 20 years it will play out Sunday on national TV.
"Being a part of the New York Marathon is a great honor in itself, but in light of the events of the last 12 months, I think it's an even greater responsibility, and certainly an added layer of meaning," said Hannah Storm, who will co-host nationally on ESPN2 and locally on Channel 7.
She was referring both to the cancellation of last year's New York event in the wake of superstorm Sandy and the bombs that rocked the Boston Marathon in April.
The programming plan is to focus on the unusual circumstances, especially in the early phases as elite runners mostly jockey uneventfully for position.
Producer Steve Mayer said that during the first 90 minutes or so of the race, the telecast will feature stories of runners who were affected by Sandy and the Boston bombings, including a woman from Staten Island who lost everything in the storm and turned to race preparation to distract her from her problems.
Crossing the finish line, Mayer said, "is going to be the moment that Sandy officially is behind her.
"Those types of stories are stories we are going to integrate into that first one hour and 30 minutes," Mayer said. "We're confident we'll hold the audience through that."
For many viewers, though, it is the actual race that is difficult to sit through. Marathons tend to be dominated by non-American athletes familiar only to avid fans, making the backdrop the real story, never more so than now.
"People may come to the television to see how the race is handled," co-host John Anderson said, "but once they get there, I think it will be compelling enough itself to hold people."
To that end, ESPN will deploy 43 cameras, six helicopters, high definition cameras and assorted technological toys that did not exist the last time the race was on national TV, including a far greater ability to track runners at every level.
That should make for better coverage of the eventual winners, but it will echo down the line. Reporter Jeremy Schaap, who said he has lived most of his life within a short walk of Central Park, joked that he looks forward to "seeing all those weekend warriors, sweating, hitting the wall in hi def for the first time."
ESPN had been scheduled to show the race last year before it was shelved and now finds itself with more of a story than it originally anticipated.
"I think everybody feels it and hopes the broadcast does a nice job of paying tribute to that and recognizing that without drowning in the morose for those things," Anderson said.
Said Storm: "The opportunity to be able to bring home what we hope is a real triumph of the human spirit, of the work of a lot of people, of a real testament to the tenacity of the competitors and the volunteers and the fans, that is what we're looking to bring across on Sunday."