TV's vulnerability races to fore as Ch. 2 copes with power outage 123RD PREAKNESS


We've all become seduced, in a sense, by the seeming infallibility of television, in that, while you may not like the program that's on, you never doubt that the program will be there.

But the mad scramble that became Channel 2's coverage of the pre-Preakness festivities yesterday serves as a reminder that television, of all our big modern contrivances, is the newcomer, and perhaps the most vulnerable to failure.

A power failure, caused by a transformer explosion, forced the tone of the coverage to shift out of celebratory mode into how to thrive in a mini-crisis.

Around 1: 13 yesterday, more than halfway through 8 1/2 hours of live coverage, the station's signal suddenly went off the air and stayed out for 17 minutes, until a generator attached to the station's microwave truck got things up and running, albeit on a limited scale.

For about 45 minutes, Channel 2's coverage was limited to the lot where the microwave truck was parked and to battery operated cameras scattered throughout the grandstand, but the personnel made do and, in some cases, thrived under the restrictions.

Though a lack of sound was an intermittent problem -- the telecast of the seventh and eighth races, for instance, was done in silence -- the producers, camera people and reporters turned in fine work.

Anchor Mary Beth Marsden was excellent as she calmly led the audience through what had happened, determining that two events -- a fire in the jockey's kitchen and the transformer explosion -- had taken place.

Racing analyst Kim Goodwin was also on the mark, providing an informed overview of how the power outage, which interrupted betting for the fifth race on the card, would affect the day's proceedings, and in particular how the track stood to take a financial bath because of the inability of bettors to make wagers.

Likewise, sports reporters Scott Garceau and Keith Mills as well as news reporters John Rosson and Scott Broom who trolled the track and environs for information, shone brightly.

Unfortunately, anchor Sandra Pinckney was in happy-talk mode all day. Even as Broom was at betting windows interviewing people affected by the outage, Pinckney was pooh-poohing the seriousness of the effect of the power failure.

A few minutes later, Pinckney inexplicably tossed Gov. Parris Glendening a couple of lighter-than-air questions about slot machines at the track that allowed Glendening a chance to grandstand uncontested on the issue.

The power outage sent ABC scrambling as well. Mark Mandel, a network spokesman, said ABC got full power just 30 minutes before air time, which effectively prevented a full rehearsal, but the telecast went on the air as scheduled with nary a visible hitch.

The ABC broadcast ran as smoothly as winner Real Quiet, with fine performances across the board, from Jim McKay's stirring voiceovers to Al Michaels' measured hosting to good reportage from Charlsie Cantey and Lesley Visser to a solid, if not spectacular race call from Dave Johnson. Jockey Chris McCarron was particularly good narrating the isolated replay of Real Quiet's win, noticing the horse's left ear twitching to feel for competition.

The network may need to spring for a tape delay if trainer Bob Baffert is in the winner's circle in three weeks, because of his barnyard utterance as Cantey wrapped up their post-race interview. McKay covered nicely, but Baffert, a media darling, should know better.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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