Hittin' the Iditarod Trail


On March 3, Alaska SuperStation will kick off its exclusive coverage of the 31st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. An integral part of Alaskan heritage, the race follows the 1,100-mile Iditarod National Historical Trail, on which dog sleds were used to deliver the mail, groceries, gold, furs, and other goods to remote parts of Alaska.

With a record 74 mushers (contestants) competing for a $600,000 purse, this year's Iditarod is expected to draw thousands of spectators to its start in Anchorage and finish in Nome.

This year, as it has for 13 consecutive years, Alaska SuperStation has exclusive rights to televise the start and finish of the race, along with VIP access to interview the mushers as the nine-day race progresses across the rugged, inclement Alaskan wilderness.

"Since most of this immense distance is not accessible by roads and is plagued by blizzards and freezing temperatures, covering the Iditarod is a tremendous technical and logistical challenge," says Sean Bradley, VP and GM of Alaska SuperStation, an ABC affiliate serving 119,000 television households across the state. "To accomplish it, we use every resource at our disposal-transporting our cameramen and reporters by small planes, ski planes or snowmobiles; and moving our signals over a combination of terrestrial, microwave, and satellite systems."

The Alaska SuperStation was launched in 1995 when owner Bob Smith combined the leading stations in the three largest markets-KIMO (Channel 13) in Anchorage; KATN (Channel 2) in Fairbanks and KJUD (Channel 8) in Juneau-into a statewide network under one owner. Besides broadcasting a live signal from its tower, flagship station KIMO uplinks its signals via satellite; KATN and KJUD downlink and in turn broadcast them via towers to their respective markets.


Except for the roads that run for 40 miles at either end of the trail, reporters and camera crew must be resourceful to gain good vantage points along the trail to cover the progress of the mushers and the dozen or more dogs pulling each of their sleds.

By contracting with local pilots, the SuperStation can fly one reporter and one cameraman on a Cessna 185 or just one reporter on a small Super Cub plane, both of which land on small runways in remote villages. Ski planes can land on frozen, snow-covered rivers; then snowmobiles can get people to the trail.

"This is a very harsh environment, so we put our personnel's safety first, then pictures and stories second," says Bradley. "In windy conditions, the snow can kick up causing people to lose sight of the trail. It's not uncommon for people to have to hunker down overnight in sleeping bags braving subzero temperatures, or be 'weathered in' for a few days, so we only send out people with appropriate survival skills."

The camcorders, lenses, and batteries also require special attention due to weather conditions. The biggest headache is trying to keep the batteries warm-by putting them above the motors of running vehicles, or close to the body-because the cold diminishes their useful life. Also, cameramen often seal camcorders inside plastic trash bags (to keep condensation from damaging circuitry) whenever moving from the outdoors into a heated cabin, school, or other building.


As the race proceeds north from Anchorage and winds its way northwest toward Nome on the Norton Sound, Alaska SuperStation establishes a midway "hub" at McGrath, Alaska, which serves as an ad hoc video editing facility with Betacam decks, monitors and edit controllers. To get the videotapes they produce back to KIMO's studios in Anchorage, the crew at McGrath usually sends the tapes on commuter or freight planes with regular flights into Anchorage. KIMO's production staff then pick them up at the airport.

But recently, the station discovered Telestream's ClipMail Pro digital media delivery sysytem. Clip Mail Pro acquires media from virtually any source, encodes it to MPEG and transmits to any Telestream appliance or FTP server according to user-defined transmission speeds and video quality levels. Because ClipMail Pro uses "store-and-forward" rather than streaming technology, quality is never affected by transmission speed; and it eliminates the expense and inconvenience of shipping services or buying satellite time.

The SuperStation currently uses Clip Mail to send news stories and production spots between its Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage offices and is looking into taking it out on the Iditarod trail and sending video back from a few locations that have reasonable Internet connectivity, according to Greg Hoch, engineer and IT manager for KIMO in Anchorage.

Bradley added that the station arranges for its reporters and videographers to send their Iditarod files using the Internet capabilities at nearby schools. (In recent years, government grants have enabled many of Alaska's most rural schools to establish high-speed Internet capability for better access to the world's information resources.) He estimated that a three-minute video file takes about 20 minutes to send.

Midway through the race, the hub is moved from McGrath up to Nome in preparation for the telecast of the finish. Both the start and finish of the race are fully produced, with live interviews with the mushers and commentary from former mushers about the strategies of the race. For example, mushers must adhere to strict rules set by the Iditarod Trail Committee, in Wasilla, Alaska, such as mandatory rest stops and restrictions on what gear can be packed onto each sled. The strategy comes from knowing when to press on, or lay back so as not to overstress or burnout their dogs-the team mushers depend on to win.


As the leading mushers approach the finish line, their point of view is captured by special "sled-cams," small video cameras and microphones that transmit a signal via microwave.

ABC, ESPN and CNN are among the networks that contract with Alaska SuperStation for satellite feeds of the start and finish ceremonies as well as pre-produced feature packages. (Other broadcasters may do stand-up reports from the Iditarod provided they don't violate Alaska SuperStation's exclusive live broadcast rights.)

"Last year, besides our conventional broadcast, we tried something new," says Bradley. "We simultaneously streamed our live coverage on the Internet-making it accessible from a link on our station's Web site-and we got a million unique hits. In fact, the response was so great that, at times, it overwhelmed the network our Webcast service provider, GCI, had arranged to Webcast it."

David Morris, vice president of corporate relations for GCI, (a provider of integrated voice, video and data communication services) in Anchorage, says Webcasts were provided from various checkpoints along the Iditarod trail at 384 Kbps.

"At various checkpoints, we set up local area networks and connected them to the Internet," says Morris. "Because all available ports were busy the entire time during [last year's] streams, this year we are looking at other options We do not see live Webcasts as a substitute for television coverage, [but rather as an alternative that] provides live access to the Iditarod by global audiences that are beyond the reach of conventional broadcasters."

Claudia Kienzle