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Racing Snooze : Local Stations Trip on Truth of the Cup; It’s a Time to Party

At 2 p.m. on the day of The Greatest Sailboat Race in the Western Hemisphere, Rick Lacher, KFMB-TV (Channel 8) assistant cameraman, reeked of boredom.

He lounged by KFMB’s makeshift “set,” a desk that looked like it had been made from Lego building blocks, strategically placed on a lawn overlooking the bay a few hundred feet from the barbed-wired- enclosed Stars & Stripes compound.

“This is like watching ice cream melt,” said Lacher, who had been at the America’s Cup site since 9 a.m. preparing for Channel 8’s live afternoon updates. “Yeah, I’m just here taking pictures of the action, writing my will, trying to stay awake.”

It was hard for the local television people not to be sarcastic.

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“Is there a race going on?” KCST-TV (Channel 39) reporter Cathy Clark asked between live updates from a position about 15 feet from Channel 8’s setup, roughly 6 million miles from the actual race.

Channel 39 had 20 to 25 staffers plodding around the scene Wednesday, as did Channels 10 and 8. Independent KUSI-TV (Channel 51) even had a crew there to do updates throughout the day, with Phil Stone, who was also doing the ESPN coverage, as host. The local stations were able to do the updates thanks to an agreement with ESPN, which allowed them to use ESPN’s pictures during the race in exchange for use of the local stations’ transmission frequencies.

The local stations really tried to make The Greatest Sailboat Race in the Western Hemisphere seem like a big-time event. Channel 39 even pulled off the rare Quadruple Pyramid News Team Toss. In one action-packed sequence Wednesday, the station’s coverage went from Marty and Denise in the newsroom to Bobby on the bay, to Cathy sitting next to Bobby, to Kevin at the Stars & Stripes compound, back to Bobby and Cathy, back to Marty and Denise, to Dave floating on the bay, back to Marty and Denise, to Susan at the yacht club, and finally back to Marty and Denise.

So it must be a big event.

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But the local TV news outlets can’t decide exactly what kind of big event it is.

“We don’t think it’s a sports story, we think it’s a news story,” said KGTV (Channel 10) news director Paul Sands.

The race prompted a rare mingling of sports and news staffs, something akin to the staffs of “The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour” and “Entertainment Tonight” getting together to cover a sewing contest.

Channel 8’s main sports guy, Ted Leitner, has enjoyed baiting sailing fans by ignoring the whole event, but fellow sports guy Jim Laslavic, who admits his knowledge of sailing is limited to his experience launching his own Hobie catamaran, was put into the role of Expert Commentator for the race updates.

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“This is pretty bizarre,” he said during a break, as word arrived that Stars & Stripes had just stretched its lead to something like eight hours, with at least three days to go in the race. “I remember staying up to watch the America’s Cup races from Australia. Would anybody stay up to watch this?”

As a buildup to The Greatest Sailboat Race in the Western Hemisphere, Channel 39 had its three sports reporters, Bobby Estill, Whitney Southwick and, making his local debut, Kevin Hunt, sitting around talking about the race. (Estill was the one without socks.) It was like calling one of those 976 numbers, 976-3JOC, to listen to three real guys blabber about yacht racing.

“It’s a boat race, so I’m not making any guesses,” Southwick gushed.

For the most part, though, coverage of the race was left to the news reporters. They scoured the spectacular America’s Cup Village--where the U. S. Postal Service booth was doing better business than the New Zealand mussels booth and the convention center promo booth put together--seeking any possible visual elements. There were pictures of people standing in line, pictures of reporters falling asleep, pictures of flags waving in the breeze and lots of pictures of people sitting around watching television, which was really the only thing for the crowd to do.

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To their credit, none of the local stations tried to add any luster to the dreary event. In fact, each was meticulous in covering the negatives, especially the lack of tourist traffic. Channel 10’s Michael Tuck took the opportunity during his Perspectives piece Wednesday night to once again attack Dennis Conner’s personality, blaming him for the poor race turnout. The day before, Conner made Channel 10’s Mark Matthews feel like a common ground slug during a pre-race news conference. Matthews had the gall to ask Conner whether he would attempt to keep the race close. Conner questioned his intelligence.

Most of the coverage focused on economic impacts and the Cup’s recent legal entanglements.

Channel 39’s Dave Owen spent most of the week floating in “Newsboat 39,” waiting for hordes of Los Angeles boaters to descend on San Diego. “No sign of them yet,” he said Tuesday.

As major events go, this was a relatively easy one for the local stations to cover. Plenty of space was provided for them on the lawn near the Chart House restaurant, east of Seaport Village, far away from the Media Fortress situated in the old police station across Harbor Drive from Seaport Village.

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A French luggage company had paid for the renovation of the station to accommodate the 900 journalists from all over the world who signed the four-page application and waiver form required of all journalists covering the event. In exchange, Louis Vuitton plastered its name over everything remotely related to the Media Fortress. American corporations were right in there as well, pasting their names on nearly everything else.

If anything, the televisions crews were lonely--unable to watch television with the print journalists. And there were few complicated logistical problems to occupy their time, although Channel 10’s crew was surprised Wednesday morning to discover that it had been chosen to distribute the ESPN feed to the broadcasters from France, New Zealand and the half a dozen other countries represented by television crews.

“We ended up being part of a humongous district center for the world feed,” weary Channel 10 executive producer Wayne Brown said midway through the afternoon, pointing to a massive array of wires. “It’s all coming out of that little box over there.”

But the Channel 39 crew was basking in unusual luxury. “We have a motor home!” producer Adam Bradshaw exclaimed. For Bradshaw, who said the event was really a dress rehearsal for future America’s Cup coverage, the biggest challenges were “to keep the microwave (signal hookup) straight and to keep everybody fed.”

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There was certain air of resignation among the local crews.

“We can’t not be here,” said Channel 39’s Clark. “It’s still a huge local story, whether it gets huge local ratings or not.”

It was an easy gig for the TV reporters, especially those assigned to do the updates, which will continue for the race today. Their day consisted of sitting beside the bay, watching TV.

“This is a blast,” said Channel 8’s Laslavic. He had discovered the secret, the underlying truth, to the entire event.

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“It’s a great excuse for a party,” he said. “If nothing else, San Diegans have always shown that they can pull together and have fun when big events come to town.”

Even if The Greatest Sailboat Race in the Western Hemisphere is not a dramatic sporting event, it is certainly a big television event.


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