More Sports / Track & Field

Former NTV producer Nobuhisa Sakata looks back on pioneering live television coverage of ekiden

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

As a former director and producer for the Nippon Television Network Corporation, Nobuhisa Sakata has participated in live broadcasts of many different major professional sporting events, such as Yomiuri Giants games and the world track and field championships.

But for him no other project inspired quite the same passion and attachment as the Hakone ekiden did. The annual collegiate relay marathon race, which is one of the biggest amateur sporting events in the country, stands out in his long and distinguished broadcasting career with the station.

After joining NTV in 1963, the Toyama Prefecture native did not understand why the local relay marathon race for universities in Kanto drew so much attention.

Yet once he was assigned to cover the 40th edition of the famous race in 1964 as a rookie employee, Sakata not only understood it, but thought he could turn it into unprecedented broadcast event.

Sakata served as a director for Giants broadcasts during the Central League club’s 1970s golden era, when players such as Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh were with the team. To make up for baseball’s frequent dead time between plays, Sakata proposed inserting segments to entertain viewers, but was turned down by his producers.

Likewise, Sakata thought that it would be interesting to mix episodic and documentary-style segments into the telecast of the 200-plus km competition, which takes about 11 hours overall to compete. He was confident he would be able to prepare tons of fascinating stories about the runners, coaches, schools and everything else behind the scenes.

“I thought that we would be able to add value to our broadcast if we did that,” Sakata told The Japan Times in an interview at his Tokyo home in late December.

The idea of televising Hakone continued to grow in Sakata’s mind. But before he could legitimately realize it, there were hurdles to overcome.

Technical challenges

The biggest issue was on the technical side. With the broadcasting technology available at the time, it wasn’t a simple task to televise the ekiden, especially the hilly fifth and sixth sections.

“Maybe everyone thinks it’s easy?” the 77-year-old asked with a laugh. “Maybe they think if we have broadcast vans and we shoot, it’s automatically shown on the screen, don’t they? No way.”

In order to deliver the event to TV sets, footage captured by the cameras had to be transmitted from where it was filmed to the station. Obstacles between the course and the broadcast stations such as buildings needed to be avoided, so helicopters were often used as relay stations.

But the hilly sections of the Hakone ekiden created headaches, as changing weather conditions could prevent helicopters from flying and create even more issues for the transmission.

According to Sakata, even leaves on trees could interrupt the broadcast signal.

Before he attempted to persuade NTV executives to air the race, Sakata went to the director of the technical department to find out if it would be possible to broadcast Hakone’s hilly sections.

The response from the technical division was direct: no, it was not possible.

But Kazutaka Onishi, a technical staff member who joined NTV in the same year as Sakata, encouraged him to keep trying.

“He told me that I was fortunate to have a chance to challenge something that was thought to be impossible,” Sakata said, recalling his conversation with Onishi.

Sakata and the group he assembled to make a live Hakone telecast a reality kept asking the company to acquire the event’s broadcasting rights. He pitched their proposal directly to NTV’s president and higher executives in an attempt to convince them of how valuable of an asset the race would be for the station.

In 1986, their wait was over. After NTV’s board rejected the proposal at meetings in April and May, the company finally gave Sakata and his group the green light in June.

On Jan. 2, 1987, NTV began its live broadcast of the Hakone ekiden — starting with the 63rd edition — with Sakata as the producer. Because of the aforementioned technical hurdles, the station had to insert prerecorded footage during the hilly sections and interrupted the race with 90-minute programs during its first two broadcasts in 1987 and 1988.

In 1989, which was Sakata’s final year associated with the competition as a member of the broadcasting team, NTV successfully aired the entire race live for the first time. Tokyo Channel 12, which is now called TV Tokyo, had carried Hakone as a digest program for several years, but no TV station had broadcast the race in its entirety until NTV did (only NHK had broadcast it on radio before Tokyo Channel 12).

Sakata said it was favorable timing, noting that NTV needed to revitalize itself as it struggled behind rival networks such as Fuji TV and TBS in ratings competitions at the time.

“The company was looking for something that would become a trigger to give us a chance to rise,” Sakata recalled.

The Hakone ekiden certainly served as one.

Lofty expectations

Sakata had assured NTV that ratings of the Hakone telecast would exceed 15 percent, which turned out to be a considerable underestimation. The race has consistently garnered figures between 25 and 30 percent and become a New Year’s tradition in many Japanese households.

Sakata stressed that teamwork made it possible to have a live broadcast of the long ekiden, which required the support of other enthusiastic staff members from different divisions.

Prior to the 1987 Hakone race, Sakata and some other staff made house journals about the race and NTV’s broadcasting plans, distributing copies to employees in order to arouse their attention and interest.

The top news, Sakata said, was always about the technical division and its staff, who don’t usually get the spotlight but serve an integral part in Hakone telecasts.

Asked if the Hakone ekiden had evoked the most passion of his career, Sakata responded by saying, “You could say so.”

“In terms of the scale of an event, the world athletic championships were bigger (than Hakone),” said Sakata, who was the chief producer for the global track and field event hosted in Tokyo in 1991. “But it’s really fortunate for me to have been able to be a part of something like Hakone. As I’ve explained, there were difficulties to overcome to realize the first event (in 1987), but we fully enjoyed the process of creating and being able to televise it.”

While the Hakone race is approaching the century mark, with Wednesday marking the 95th edition, the ekiden format has not found purchase outside of Japan.

But Sakata, who later served as the president of J. League’s Verdy Kawasaki (now Tokyo Verdy) and taught sports management as a professor of the graduate school at Kokushikan University, hopes that a special event, perhaps even held overseas, will take place to commemorate one of Japan’s most decorated and intriguing athletic competitions.