NBC/Golf Channel Top Dog Should Preach What He Practices

 

We’re just hours away from Super Bowl Sunday, a day that sees entire television networks offer up wall to wall coverage devoted to ONE sport. While that is one day for CBS and ESPN it just happens to be every day for the Golf Channel. I know, I was there for 18 years. Those of you who know me, or know this space, also know my job at Golf Channel was to produce live tournament coverage. For more than two decades (at GC and ESPN before that) it was my responsibility to decide which golfer to show on television during a golf tournament and how often to show him or her. I learned from two of the best in the business, Andy Young and Steve Beim, who showed me not only how to tell a story, but also create pace in an inherently slow sport by moving around the golf course and showing as many golf shots as possible. Some producers prefer to concentrate on a few players and show them for greater minutes, even when they aren’t executing a golf shot. I was not one of those producers and from what I can see neither is current NBC/Golf Channel head honcho Tommy Roy.

When I came to the Golf Channel in 1994 I espoused that coverage philosophy during our live tournament coverage. When we hit the airwaves in 1995 that’s exactly what we did. In fact, the network built an entire marketing campaign around it using two words… More Golf.

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In the beginning I was the only one calling the shots but as the channel grew and acquired more broadcast rights the need for additional crews and production teams became apparent. We added more producers but it was still my job to encourage those “in the chair” to stay true to the original game plan, “show as much golf and as many players as possible.” Throughout my time in the truck I taped a groupings/pairings sheet on the console to my right. On it I could write, among other things, the name of the on course announcer I had assigned to various groups. I could also put a line through a player’s name when we showed him, or her, hit a shot on TV. I am proud to admit there were days when as many as 60 players had a line through their name at the end of a 4-hour broadcast. There are still a number of people producing live golf for Golf Channel but sadly I’m convinced there is only one who gives any thought to what I believe set the network apart in its formative years… showing More Golf.

I decided to bite the bullet and offer proof of this by sitting down and watching a full day of golf on Friday. As a fan of the sport I feel it’s the only thing that makes the Golf Channel watchable any more. Tournament golf, on TV, all day. The day started with live coverage of the Senior Tour, no wait, the Champions Tour, no wait, the PGA TOUR Champions, followed by an hour of live news programming from the Waste Management Phoenix Open, followed by live coverage of that golf tournament proper. The day was then capped off by tape delayed coverage of the LPGA in Ocala, Florida. Nine hours of tournament coverage with an additional hour of “news” thrown in there and I watched it all. I watched it with a purpose. I watched it to compare, tour, by tour, by tour and producer, by producer, by producer, exactly how many different players were shown hitting a golf shot at each venue. The exercise proved what I long knew to be true; Tommy Roy shows more golf than anyone else but sadly he doesn’t expect that philosophy to be followed by the people who work for him and should aspire to be him.

I believe every round is an opportunity to show as many players as possible but it’s easier to do that during early round coverage for several obvious reasons. First, there are more players on the golf course; Second, the biggest names are still competing; and Third, the storylines have yet to fully develop so a producer can bounce around more. Tommy Roy has always used early rounds to show a lot of golf and he did it again on Friday. But it’s so much easier to stick to a perceived script and concentrate on a few guys and ignore the rest of the field (what would Bernie Sanders say to that!?!). It’s a simple matter of convenience but it’s also a telling indication of confidence and competence. My day of watching golf and counting players started with the “old guys”.

Right off the bat I saw Bernhard Langer, Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman in the early stages of their round. Don’t get me wrong those guys are among the biggest names on that tour and if I were in the truck on Friday I would show them too. Monty was grouped with Lehman. Jeff Maggert was the third. We saw them all. Langer was playing alongside Kenny Perry and Jeff Sluman and, as expected, they were all part of the broadcast too (though Sluman didn’t make an appearance until the last 15 minutes of the three hour telecast). Surprisingly we got a glimpse of Rod Spittle but no love for the fellow competitors in his threesome (Scott McCarron and Guy Boros). There was a shot of Carlos Franco but Willie Wood and Jay Don Blake, despite playing with Franco, weren’t worthy of inclusion. For some reason we got to see Dr. Gil Morgan hit a shot but not Mike Goodes or Kevin Sutherland (both past champions on the PGA TOUR Champions tour). There was Michael Allen but not Curtis Strange or Brad Faxon. Look its Craig Parry! But I had to look at the groupings, on line, to see the Aussie was playing with Mike Springer and Glen Day. Corey Pavin was leading so we got to see him but we didn’t get to see hide nor hair of John Huston or Scott Verplank. Fuzzy Zoeller got on TV a bunch (thank goodness!) but not Bob Tway or Jesper Parnevik.

I point all of this out not because I’m a huge fan of Gene Sauers and Bob Gilder (who didn’t get shown despite playing with Tom Purtzer who did) but because it actually takes more effort, in many cases, to not show guys than it does to show them. On average it takes somewhere between 10 and 20 seconds to show a shot (especially if that shot has been previously recorded) but instead of doing that we, as viewers were treated to Bernhard Langer, a legendary slowpoke, walk around a putt he was never going to make for a full 90 seconds. That’s at least four golf shots! Not to mention the guy we were watching (Langer) was never better than even par for the day while a dozen guys we weren’t watching (including Scott Hoch, Joe Durant, Billy Andrade, Tommy Armour III, Todd Hamilton, Sutherland, and Paul Goydos) were all under par. That’s not mismanagement, it’s malpractice.

For 2 hours and 55 minutes I was treated to 19, that’s right NINETEEN old guys playing golf while watching an almost equal amount of “crap” in the form of features, interviews, promos, and statistical full screen graphics. In the last five minutes a flurry of players, close to the lead (Fred Funk, Andrade, and Goydos), got air time in the form of one golf shot. That brought the grand total of different players shown to 23 in THREE HOURS! I grabbed a sandwich and a diet coke and returned to my perch to watch “Golf Central LIVE from the Waste Management Phoenix Open.” It proved interesting, and actually a little sad, that the all golf network showed almost as many guys play golf during its news show than it did in the three hours of tournament coverage that preceded it.

Finally, it was time for the PGA TOUR with Tommy Roy at the helm. True to form and fashion we saw a lot of Phil (you can read my earlier post about why this bugs me) and Rickie Fowler but in the first hour we saw 12 other guys. In the next five minutes we got a look at four more bringing Tommy’s total to 18 in 65 minutes. One shy of the total shown in the previous tournament coverage’s one hundred and seventy-five minutes. Long before the two-hour mark of the Phoenix show, Roy matched the 23 number thanks to a shot of Camilo Villegas, and then blasted through that barrier by showing Charles Howell III, Tyrone Van Aswegen, Kevin Na, Harris English, Chad Campbell, Robert Streb, Tony Finau, and Ryan Palmer. It didn’t matter their score in relation to par or how close they were to the lead, they were golfers, hitting golf shots and a good producer made the time to show them. Sure he had the PGA TOUR and the spectacle of the par three 16th hole in his pocket but given the same set of circumstances the person producing the Champions Tour (oops I did it again), wouldn’t have been, apparently isn’t capable of being, so generous. In all Roy showed 31 different players, not 50 or 60 but not bad. Next up the LPGA tour.

I love the LPGA Tour and, full disclosure, personally like a number of the people responsible for this broadcast (some of them a lot) but I’m sorry to report that the fans who wanted to watch the outstanding players on this tour were the most frustrated and least served. Right off the bat we saw Kim Kaufman, Haru Noruma, Ha Na Jang and Lydia Ko hit shots before the first commercial. Over the next 20 minutes we watched 7 more including Michelle Wie, Suzann Petersen and Brooke Henderson. Eleven different players in half an hour of television. Another half an hour later we had only seen an additional four hit shots (and Carlotta Ciganda only got on TV because she chipped in… not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Were you watching? Any idea who was grouped with Pettersen? Yeah, me neither. Did you get a chance to see who was playing alongside Michelle Wie, Lizette Salas or Gerina Piller? No you didn’t because somebody made the conscious choice to not show those players. My friends, and for that matter my non-friends, on that tour might argue that there were weather delays and coverage of the leaders had to start at the very first hole. Sorry, not good enough. When the taping started every player that made the cut was on the golf course. Cameras were “with” Petersen, Wie, Piller and others but as far as we at home knew they were playing by themselves. Another argument that I would make for showing more players is that it was a foregone conclusion that there would be no conclusion to the round during the time Golf Channel was on the air so why not show every single player you could? At the end of the two-hour telecast we had only seen 15 different people hit at least one shot.

So that was my day. My takeaway is that I still like watching live golf but am enjoying it less and less on Golf Channel. One thing that would make it a more enjoyable viewing experience for me is a concerted effort by Tommy Roy, one of the best in the business, to demand better of the people over whom he presides. Demand more. Tell his charges to show more golf, teach them how. He does it, I did it, find out if they can do it. It must be important to Tommy because he makes a point of bringing the philosophy of More Golf to his broadcasts. Why should it be less important to the other folks who produce golf on his network? Bottom line is it would, in my view, be a better product and who wouldn’t want that?

About Keith Hirshland

My name is Keith Hirshland and I am a four decades television veteran who has spent time both in front of and behind the camera. During nearly forty years in broadcasting my path has crossed in front of, behind and alongside some of the best in the business... And some of the worst. Many of those people I count as friends while others wouldn't make the effort to spit on me if I was on fire. This television life started early watching my Mom and Dad found, fund and run a local affiliate TV station in Reno, Nevada. As a teenager approaching adulthood I worked for them, first as an on-air sports reporter/anchor and later as a director and producer. Jobs in the industry took me across the country and then to many places around the world. Sports is my passion and putting it on TV has been my business. Production credits include auto racing, baseball, basketball, bowling, college football, field hockey, soccer, volleyball and water polo but the majority of my time "in the chair" since 1990 has been invested in the game of golf with both ESPN and The Golf. Channel ( I was one of the first forty people hired by TGC in 1994 ). I am a fan and I watch TV sports as a fan but I also have hundreds of thousands of hours watching from inside a production truck. I think that makes me qualified to comment, my hope is you agree. I have written two books, Cover Me Boys, I'm Going In (Tales of the Tube from a Broadcast Brat), a memoir that is a tribute to my parents, the hard working, creative people who started ESPN2 and The Golf Channel and a look back at my life in television. My second book is a novel, Big Flies, and is a mystery that tells the story of a father and a son with four of the world's most notorious unsolved robberies as a backdrop. I look forward to sharing new thoughts about golf, golf television, sports in general and the broadcast industry with you. The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They are not connected to nor endorsed by any other person, association, company or organization.
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