New York City Marathon Coverage Is No Walk in the Park

By Carolyn Braff
On Sunday morning, nearly 40,000 runners will take over the streets of the five boroughs of New York for the 39th running of the New York City Marathon, and a broadcasting team nearly 200-strong is running its own marathon to capture the race. Crews from NEP, NBC, IMG Media, Strategic TV, and Total RF Productions have been working throughout the streets of New York since last Sunday, mapping the 26.2-mile course, laying down fiber, and getting set for one of the world’s great road races.
“We get started on the marathon a good six to eight months out with preliminary planning, hiring the crew members that we need, and working out specific technical details,” explains Errol Foremaster, VP of special projects for NEP Broadcasting. The 2008 race marks NEP’s 15th Marathon production.
NEP has four mobile production units on hand to cover the event. SS8 and Slate are in Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, near the start line at the base of the Verrazano Bridge.
“It takes several days to put in thousands of feet of wire there,” explains John Tomlinson, senior technical manager for NEP. “The start line alone chews up 25,000 feet of triax, which we’re running with Sony 950 and 900 cameras.”
High-definition is prohibitively expensive for this show, so the SD production relies on 25 wired cameras, two helicopters, six motorized vehicles (“motos”), seven graphics machines, 168 microphones, and 200 crew members.
In addition to the two units at the start line, an ENG van equipped with a camera and some additional effects parks on First Avenue in Manhattan, about halfway through the race. Two more trucks, SS 22 and support truck ESU, are stationed at the broadcast center on the finish line in Central Park. A live local NBC show, national NBC highlight show, world-feed production, and NBC.com Webstream are all transmitted from that broadcast center, where Total RF’s RF5 truck also is parked.
Several of the cameras are placed in stationary positions — like the beauty camera atop the Bay Ridge Building in Brooklyn — but many provide feeds from moving vehicles, which requires plenty of RF coordination, especially in a spectrum as crowded as New York.
“We have to spread across a lot of bands to make RF work in New York City,” explains Kurt Heitmann, president of Total RF Productions. “There is a lot of coordination we have to do for this show, and it gets harder every year.”
The RF cameras, microphones, and communications gear are spread across eight bands, and each building with an RF receive site has its own RF coordinator in charge.
The Bay Ridge Building, the Citicorp Building in Queens, and the GM building in Manhattan all host receive sites. Personnel at each decide which incoming signal looks best and then send it through microwave T1 communications connecting the buildings to the broadcast center. RF5 receives the signals on Central Park West and sends them to NEP’s ESU and SS22 trucks to be used in the broadcast.
Two helicopters are flying in from Philadelphia and Linden, NJ, to cover the race, and six motos roam the course with Flir gyro-stabilized cameras. Moto 5, the Pack Cam, is assigned to an announcer who runs portions of the race.
“A number of years ago, we developed what we call the Pack Cam,” Foremaster explains. “A motorcycle is set up with RF gear, so that the talent can be running along in the race with a headset and stick microphone to be able to talk to runners. The wireless audio signals go back to that motorcycle and then come back to us via the RF paths.”
Helicopter and moto signals are sent via digital microwave to the RF receive sites, then forwarded on to the broadcast center.
Some interference is almost inevitable. “We do test after test after test, but the morning the race starts, every station in town is doing something, so you have to be fluid,” Foremaster says.
Because the women’s race starts 30 minutes before the men’s, keeping the two leader boards separate requires all seven graphics machines onboard the trucks, as well as 25 spotters stationed throughout the five boroughs.
“We’ve got 19 bicycles and six other spotters along the course,” Foremaster explains. “They communicate via radios back to the race experts in the trailer that keep everyone straight. That whole spotting operation is closely tied to the graphics operation.”
Every runner wears a ChampionChip on a shoe to mark his or her time at intervals throughout the race. “We take that data and interface it into some Vizrt graphics devices that generate running order and times, which turn into graphics,” Tomlinson explains.
The audio component of the race is equally daunting, with 168 microphones spread throughout the course.
“Microphones go everywhere,” explains Patty Law, NEP’s start line production manager. “On motorcycles, on cameras, they hang them in the bleachers to hear crowd noises — they’re everywhere.”
Strategic TV provides eight video and audio fiber circuits throughout the city, as well as all of the phone lines that equip the broadcast center.
“There are certainly challenges because it’s in New York, but it seems like, after 15 years. it’s gotten to be pretty cookie-cutter,” explains Matt Bridges, president/GM of Strategic TV. “We went from having 15 microwave circuits to having all fiber throughout the city for transmission.”
Significant fiber infrastructure is required in Central Park to accommodate the broadcast center, so Strategic TV works closely with Verizon to make sure the circuits are properly installed for the 60-plus phone lines needed in the broadcast center.
“This week is all about managing the services that were put into place for a six-week lead-time,” Bridges explains.
By the time teardown begins Sunday afternoon, the production team will have successfully completed a marathon of its own.