Running on TV: Five Things Broadcasters Get Wrong
By: Louis Sartori
Covering events from mass-participation marathons to weekend-long track meets must be a logistical nightmare; organizing all things from camera work to sourcing apt commentators sounds like a mountain of work. Alas, being a fan of the sport, we do expect certain tenets of good coverage which frustratingly aren’t always met. It is no coincidence that nowadays a good chunk of twitter-chatter preceding most big races/events is centered on the quality of the couch-based viewing experience. With that being said, here are some of my least favorite downfalls in television running coverage which impair the spectating experience.
What I mean when I say ‘inexperienced’ is a lack of experience in the sport. I think we can all agree that we would rather listen to an ex-pro runner with no commentary experience than a generic ‘sports’ commentator. You can really hear the difference. The experienced commentator has an eye for the nuances of the sport; they can better place themselves in the position of the athletes and recognize the true significance of things like moves, splits and rivalries. The inexperienced commentator is good only for surface-level readings of what is happening and basic facts they have pulled from research. A great recent example was the commentator covering the Istanbul Half Marathon. He attracted less than positive reviews on twitter for his robotic use of wikipedia and clear lack of knowledge surrounding the event. I love Mac Fleet's Twitter rant, when he talked about commentators explaining the sport like it was “invented three weeks ago”. We can compare the Istanbul commentator’s style to someone like Steve Cram, the brit, an ex-professional athlete and current coach. Put side by side, their commentary is like night and day. Cram recognizes the fine details of what is happening and says things that he knows viewers want to hear. Ultimately the problem is not the fault of commentators themselves but the people who hire them. Television companies, please stop employing commentators ill-equipped to commentate on running events.
The commentator is clearly not invested in the race. Basic commentary and a clear lack of knowledge make for a poor viewing experience. I didn't catch this race live but I’m glad because his style would have made me want to turn it off.
Cram’s commentary here on the last lap is iconic, it gives me chills. Here is a commentator fully aware of the drama, the stakes, the significance of what he is seeing. His passion, energy and knowledge adds so much to the coverage.
Cutting Away From The Live Coverage
As a distance fan, there is little I dislike more than when coverage of distance races on the track are interrupted. Be it to go to an ad break, or to focus on events in the field. Now this is purely a personal gripe. Obviously, field events deserve as much screen time as any track race, but it still grinds my gears every time cameras cut away from a developing distance race to cover a shot put throw or a triple jump. As a distance fan, I just don’t care. Some examples are worse than others. Channels cutting to a commercial break during the middle of a 5000m and missing major moves is probably the most heinous example. I don’t mind it when cameras cut to the field at the start of longer races and return to the track promptly. When the former happens however, we miss a large chunk of action and are left to guess what has happened. Ultimately, this is not something that NEEDS to be changed, I can’t exactly argue that broadcasters need to prioritize showing events of my preference. Nonetheless, I can’t be the only one who groans when cameras turn to the javelin, or cut away to show sponsors as the 10,000m I’m invested in approaches its climax. One solution I can think of is a split screen method. We see it used regularly for road races to show the men’s and women’s fields simultaneously. Why couldn’t we apply that idea to track and field coverage?
Focussing on everything BUT the race
A lot of the time, specifically in road racing, coverage manages to spotlight everything but the race at hand. The BBC’s coverage of the London Marathon is guilty of this although the reason is fairly legitimate.The race routinely raises around £50 million for charity every year, and in 2019 it saw a record breaking £66.4 million raised. These achievements should be acknowledged and celebrated, yet when the personal stories of 4:30 marathoners we have no connection or interest in dominate airtime over the elite race it does take away from the viewing quality in my opinion. This all may sound callous but I honestly don’t think anyone with the slightest interest in road racing watches these events because they care for the progress of mass participants. Similarly, the ‘shoe debate’ arises in me, a groan every time. We get it, there are shoes that are helping people run faster, isn’t that the point? Sure, it's a valid conversation, but do we really need to entertain it EVERY time? If we’re going to treat it like a mandatory element of modern day punditry, I would at least like to see some refreshing takes on the argument, not just a basic outlining of the controversy because at this point, to quote my editor; we are ‘beating a dead horse’.
Unequal coverage between male and female runners.
As I mentioned earlier, some broadcasts utilize split-screens to track the men’s and women’s fields in road races, simultaneously. The New York Road Runner’s coverage of the NYC Marathon has historically been good at this. I was also impressed at NBC’s coverage of the US Marathon Trials in Atlanta, I thought they dedicated time to both fields and made sure viewers were constantly in the know about both; with on screen graphics and updates. However, elsewhere this inequality often prevails and the women’s field often comes off on the worse side. This minor gripe I have with the practicalities of race coverage is only the tip of an iceberg. An iceberg concerning a general inequality surrounding media coverage of the women’s side of our sport. Cherie Turner has written at length about this issue. She highlights better than I ever could, the disparity in media coverage between male and female athlete interests. Female athletes simply aren’t covered nearly as much as the men. This is an embarrassing anachronism and a big problem that running-related media needs to shed. Zooming back into pure road race coverage, it's a painfully ironic state of affairs because traditionally female fields set off at least twenty minutes before the men. Why do they not receive the same amount of punditry, camera time and interest from broadcasting stations? Just this past weekend, I was watching the NN Mission Marathon on the BBC. I saw and I heard much about Kipchoge’s run, but very little about Katharina Steinrueck; who won the women’s race. Kipchoge may be a higher-profile athlete, but the stakes in both races were the same. There is no excuse for this, broadcaster’s need to do more to cover events more equally.
On a lighter note, I want to finish with commentators butchering athlete’s names. For example, this Payton Jordan 1500m was one of Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s breakout races. He beat reigning Olympic champion Matt Centrowitz, not to mention a host of other accomplished Americans including Craig Engels and Paul Chelimo. Yet race coverage was weakened by the Flotrack commentators struggling with the Norwegian’s name. Watch the race for yourself, “Jacob Ingelbrigtsen” is the pronunciation attempt that irks me the most. I get it, he was fresh on the scene; they may not have heard or seen his name too much at that point, but tell me something, where are you seeing the ‘L’ in there? How hard is it to look up previous race footage for reference if you’re unsure? As a viewer; mispronunciation on as comedic a level as this, is so un-immersive. You want to be close to the action, to be gripped by the spectacle of a young upstart putting seasoned pros to the sword. Yet you’re only half concentrating on the race, the commentating is that poor. This 5000m also springs to mind, fast forward to the last third of the race and the pronunciation of Kajelcha’s name is just as bad. I’m sure there are numerous other examples that will come to your mind because this problem is so common. We could ban every athlete with ambiguous, non-western-sounding names but alternatively, we could just learn how to interpret and say names from outside of the western world.
All groans aside, coverage of running on television is something I am highly grateful for, especially coverage not locked behind a paywall or subscription service. In the UK it feels as though fewer and fewer running events are being covered live which bolsters the growing notion that public interest is waning. Now coverage is probably different around the world, and I should acknowledge my bias for British pundits and ad-free BBC broadcasting. Nonetheless, we have all followed that dodgy Czech streaming site to watch European track, or turned on VPNs to bypass the geo-restrictions of Canadian broadcasters.Yes, I am most used to British broadcasting, but the average fan is forced to get around online to truly follow the sport. It is for this reason that I feel as though I am somewhat qualified to have this moan at the general state of coverage. Ultimately, for all the issues and complaints we come up with, I think we can all agree that we would rather have our sport broadcast than not. Think of the above as simple suggestions for broadcasting companies to make the coverage that gets produced to be as engaging and effective as possible. Perhaps this might make broadcasting companies more inclined to take on our events and meets; an expertly covered track meet or road race would surely attract more ratings than a half assed one.
Comment below with your thoughts on how to improve running broadcasts!