From the wunderland article:
"During the Depression, marathons reflected the status of America at the time. A heavily staged form of forced labor, marathons relied on the amount of time spectators and contestants, out of work victims of the Depression, had on their hands. Promoters found new ways of forcing the marathons to continue for months, enlisting entertainers and staging dramatic situations. They established ways of adding tension and excitement to the dreary competition, including races and complicated tests of endurance for the contestants; elimination contests that likened the marathons to the horrors of spectator sports in the Roman Coliseum. The chance at fame and fortune was there, but at the cost of humiliation at least, and at most, mental and physical health problems or even death. By the depressed 1930s, marathons took on new meanings: the pain and misery of the contestants helped spectators feel better about their own situations, while the prize represented a hope of the American Dream for contestants, probably never to be realized. It was certainly a far cry from the fun, voluntary sport that it had been in the 1920s."
The wunderland article was written in 2004. It would be interesting to see articles from the time period. The book was written in 1935.
Not the same thing as today's reality TV.