Kaufmann: This is Fox's moment to reinvent TV golf
No sooner had the USGA’s new television contract with Fox Sports been announced than I started seeing comments on Twitter from Brandt Snedeker and others lambasting the new business partners for announcing their agreement on the eve of the PGA Championship.
Snedeker called it “petty.” “Couldn’t wait?” Sneds asked. Another tweeter threatened to boycott the USGA for the “disrespect” it showed the PGA of America.
Um, how, exactly, do you boycott a nonprofit association? Let’s forget that for the time being. And let’s concede that the timing of this announcement could have been better. But frankly, I couldn’t care less about the poor timing and bad manners displayed by the USGA and Fox Sports.
All I care about is the quality of the telecasts that Fox Sports delivers starting in 2015. Televised golf is, on the whole, a dismal, stale medium desperately in need of fresh blood and new ideas. Will Fox deliver that? Who knows, but it’s worth a shot. At the very least, the new competition might force other golf broadcasters to elevate their games.
Here’s my advice to Fox as it ponders airing its first U.S. Open in 2015: Don’t start by trolling through the employee rosters at NBC, CBS, Golf Channel and ESPN, looking to cherry-pick some of the top talent to oversee your golf coverage. This isn’t a genre that needs more of the same. It’s crying out for a total makeover.
Start slowly, Fox. Start by watching a lot of televised golf and asking a lot of questions. Those questions should include:
• How do we deliver more action at a faster pace? Golf producers for too long have been comfortable with the notion that the game moves slowly, and so it’s OK if the telecasts do the same. So we viewers spend our weekends watching PGA Tour players walking the fairways, checking the wind conditions, circling the putting green. If we’re lucky, viewers might see one golf shot per minute. That’s not good enough, especially when there’s action happening all over the golf course.
• How do we bring viewers closer to the action? We routinely see cameras and microphones within 10 feet of players and caddies. But what good does it do us? It’s almost as if the broadcasters and players are engaged in a conspiracy to keep viewers at a distance. Player-caddie conversations are more closely guarded than national secrets.
By comparison, consider the NFL. It’s not easy getting close to the action on an NFL field, yet NFL Films has been doing it for more than a half century. Think of Hank Stram telling his players to “keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys” or Vince Lombardi screaming, “What the hell’s going on out here?” Those moments and hundreds more are central to the sport’s lore. It’s hardly a coincidence that the NFL is the nation’s dominant sport. The NFL tries to bring fans closer to the game; the PGA Tour and its broadcast partners try to keep fans at a distance.
• Where do we go to find fresh voices and new production ideas? Landing a job on the CBS or NBC crew is akin to a federal judgship; it’s virtually a lifetime appointment. The networks tout their experience when they should be lamenting their complacency.
On the talent side, we have a parade of announcers who tell us that a player “blocked his drive to the right” or “missed on the low side of the hole.” It’s a visual medium. We don’t need more announcers telling us what we can see with our own eyes. We need announcers who speak less and say more – in other words, provide analysis and perspective rather than play-by-play. (I will make one suggestion: Fox definitely should call Brandel Chamblee. He’s far and away the most interesting voice in televised golf, and he has the game for the big stage.)
On the production side, Fox should look for bright, ambitious people who want to advance the medium. Fox should seek out people who know and love golf, but also have a track record of innovating when producing other sports.
• What technology can we bring to bear that will help viewers follow the action and better appreciate the artistry of the golfers? Technology such as the Protracer, which tracks ball flight, and super-slow-motion cameras are fine. But they have a been-there-done-that quality. What’s next? And what can be used on every hole, as opposed to, say, Protracer, which often is used on only two or three holes.
• How can we make golf courses more three-dimensional for viewers, so that they might better appreciate elements such as the cant of the fairways or the slope of the greens? The closest thing we had to this was Golf Channel’s AimPoint, which provided a real-time putting line as players were about to strike the putt. But it got kicked to the curb in favor of a cheaper, less-dynamic alternative. So when announcers talk about such things as slope and elevation, we have to use our imagination, because they’re not apparent even on our high-definition televisions.
Here’s the bottom line: I haven’t the slightest clue whether Fox Sports will be good for golf or our national championships. But I’m not going to belittle Fox just because it’s new to professional golf. Many view that as a liability; I think it’s an asset because it might promote a fresh approach. There’s some precedent for this.
One of the best weeks of live broadcasting I ever witnessed was in January 2007, when Golf Channel aired all four rounds of the PGA Tour’s season-opening tournament at Kapalua. Golf Channel had just won the PGA Tour contract, and Kapalua was its coming-out party. Golf Channel previously had aired Champions Tour and Web.com (nee Nationwide) Tour events, but never the big Tour. But Golf Channel was hungry, eager to prove itself, and it showed in the product that viewers saw.
Golf Channel’s Tour coverage has never been as good as it was that first week in 2007. It has reverted to a safe, formulaic approach. But the lesson I took from that week in Kapalua was that experience – which NBC, CBS and ESPN have in abundance – doesn’t guarantee that golf fans will see a good show. In fact, it might mean just the opposite.