A Day at the Races

The popularity of road races has ratcheted up in recent years, drawing entrants to sites as exotic as the Great Wall of China and the North Pole. These contests have also drawn millions of spectators globally.

In response, broadcasters are expanding their coverage via the Internet as well as offering alternate viewing options.

At presstime, the World Championship Sports Network, which claims television broadcasts to more than 45 million subscriber households in the United States, was offering free live Internet coverage of the April 13 Flora London Marathon, the only live coverage of the U.K. event in the United States. It also planned to offer the world the first Internet coverage of the Boston Marathon on April 21, vying with WBZ’s local telecast and Verizon’s national coverage.


Earlier this year, race coverage in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Los Angeles also strove for personal best.

In Puerto Rico, Mestawet Tufa’s quest to dethrone the four-year reigning champ, Lornah Kiplagat at the “World’s Best 10K” on Feb. 24, came up one kilometer short. And a last minute blunder by Silas Kipruto cost him the win to top contender Deriba Merga.

But the International Association of Athletics Federation’s race proved a hit for WAPA-TV in San Juan.

“This year we were able to reach our goal of covering the race 100 percent,” said Producer Paco Vargas.

WAPA began covering the event in 2001 as news capsules, but eventually, as Vargas described it, “the race just took on a life of its own.” The station has been transmitting the race from starting gate to finish line since 2004 on TV and via its Web site, and later added a half-hour pre-race TV sports commentary. But until this year, coverage of the race was limited to certain camera angles due to the peculiarities of the course (no buildings off which to bounce signals), in and around Teodoro Moscoso Bridge.

What was different this time around, said Vargas, was the combined efforts of Microwave Radio Communications, Link technology, local VAR distributor RGB Broadcast, production company HyDra Comm and the station’s engineering department. They made use of the first COFDM digital microwave system used in a sports event in Puerto Rico, according to Vargas.

(click thumbnail)At this year’s Los Angeles Marathon, a motorcycle sidecar crew follows lead female runner, Tatiana Aryasova, who crossed the finish line first to win “The Challenge.”WAPA had live feeds from two LINK camera radios, an L1103 and the new L1503. In addition, signals were sent back to two LINK receivers via a combination of MRC high-gain sector antennas installed at a temporary antenna structure near the mid-point of the race course; from there, the video was backhauled to the studio via two 7 GHz MRC tripod-mounted portable Strata transmitters.

“We had a total of eight cameras all around the route,” Vargas said. “We also had a helicopter camera and security cameras from the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge.”


Phil Olsman, executive producer of the Los Angeles marathon describes the event as “kind of like a football game on a 26-mile field with 25,000 participants.” The March 4 event was the sixth time Olsman, a co-partner in Roggin Productions (with KNBC Sports Anchor Fred Roggin), was hired by KNBC to produce the event. A pool feed was also provided to its sister station, the Spanish-language KVEA.

A TV production truck was parked at the start and another at the finish line, and about 140 crew members, six helicopters, 26 camera positions and five sidecar motorcycles provided coverage. KNBC provided technology (ENG trucks, News Chopper 4, satellite units, cameras), crew and microwave sites, and set up an all-city IFB system.

“We borrowed every frequency from every other television station [in the L.A. Basin] to put our show on,” Olsman said.

The other helicopters, leased from Coastal Helicopters in Carlsbad, Calif., were primarily used to relay signals from the motorcycles to the KJOI receive site tower, near the starting line. Olsman said most connections were SDI, but there were still elements using analog; the production was slowly moving to COFDM and, at last count was about two thirds of the way into a total transition.

Prime vendor Aerial Video Systems in Burbank was an essential element to this telecast, said Olsman. According to AVS president Randy Hermes, the five motorcycles were outfitted with LINK XP wireless camera systems, which fed LINK XP receivers via preselect RF filters. An MRC PTX Pro transmitter sent helicopter signals back to the land-based receive site via a motorized omnidirectional antenna mounted to the helicopter skids. The signals were then picked up by manually pointed dish antennas and fed to five MRC PRX-Pro receivers stationed on a mountaintop overlooking the San Fernando and L.A. basins. Olsman noted that AVS also provided seven 2-way channels for the IFB system.

Heightening the action was “RaceTracker,” developed in-house by Roggin Productions in conjunction with AVS, to track the respective leads.

“Our event incorporates ‘The Challenge,’ which is a handicap [by which] the women are given a head start in a very calculated formula—first of either gender who crosses the finish line wins an additional $100,000,” said Olsman. “RaceTracker allows us to put on a screen, a map with icons that indicate the men and women and wheelchairs and their exact position on the course—kind of like watching PacMan—to put in some theater and drama.” The screen updates every four seconds.

But the big news this year was the multistreamed online coverage, which included the entire KNBC and KVEA telecast; distinctive coverage by KNBC’s digital channel, 4.4, NewsRaw; isolated video feeds of the leads; and the ability to track runners crossing the finish line, thanks to a newly installed Panasonic DVC-30 pointed at the spot. So anyone who wanted to see their child, parent or significant other in their moment of glory could watch—even long after the KNBC broadcast went off the air. The Internet feed also had its own set of commercials.

“We went way over 100,000 hits [KNBC.com and KVEA.com combined],” said Jodie Mena, news technical operations manager for KNBC, KVEA and KWHY. “The finish-line camera was viewed by at least 7,000 people after noon, when we were off the air. Our number last year was, conservatively, about 3,000 hits.”

What’s more, “20 or 30 countries clicked in,” he added. “A lot of viewers came to the Web to see this race that would never have picked up the telecast.”

The new online coverage simply required reprogramming a server on KNBC’s internal router, assigning it an address (via Akamai), and linking it to the Web site. In addition, bars were fed into the set up to test it before the race, as actual motion is required to test whether or not the video delivery would freeze.

Next year, Mena plans to use a DSL connection as his main plan for the finish line camera instead of a broadband air card (with a microwave connection, again, as backup), and 270 MB fiber circuits to aggregate the streams (versus isolated circuits). He would also like isolated feeds from all the motorcycle cameras. Olsman would like to incorporate separate RaceTracker and helicopter feeds.

“[Covering the marathon is] certainly one of, if not the, most complex, and therefore expensive, undertakings we do,” said KNBC News Director Bob Long. “Hopefully, we made some money.”