Early in his broadcasting career, Jimmy Roberts recalls asking a producer how long a story should be, and getting a surly response.
“Why do you keep asking me that?” Roberts recalls his producer growling. “A story is as long as it needs to be.”
Well, yes, but as Roberts knows from his work at NBC – and we ink-stained wretches at Golfweek understand as well – there are limitations. Stories are measured in minutes and seconds and words. Run too long and something needs to be cut. And with each cut – each paragraph, each sentence, each word – a little piece of your creative soul is shaved away.
That will be less of a concern for Roberts as the second season of “In Play,” his magazine show that airs on Golf Channel, starts at 10 p.m. EST Monday. The monthly show has been lengthened from 30 to 60 minutes, giving Roberts the opportunity to do the kind of expansive storytelling that he most enjoys.
To hear Roberts tell it, this is the sort of vehicle that he has wanted since his first job in television, working on the staff of the late Howard Cosell.
“This is such a great opportunity,” Roberts said. “I don’t know what your dream job is, but for me, they said to me, you can have your own show and just tell stories. I don’t know how you can have a better job than that.”
Roberts serves not just as host of “In Play” but also managing editor, giving him the power to shape the entire show. During the 30-minute format last season, “In Play” presented three stories per show, with little differentiation in emphasis. Roberts thought viewers would get “fatigued” if he just just gave them twice as much of the same format.
“Unless you’re Mariano Rivera,” Roberts said, “you’re not getting by with one pitch.”
This time around, he wanted the show to feel like “people were sitting down with a magazine.” So he has placed more emphasis on pacing.
There are quick-hitting stories – such as a “Then and Now” feature and a visit with NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson – and some lighter fare. On that point, Roberts recruited actor and comedian Matty Blake to serve as his “golf detective,” addressing questions – in this episode, what is the birthplace of American golf? – that are frequently asked but rarely answered. There also are the meatier features that Roberts most enjoys.
Among the latter is a story in the second-season premiere on Michael LaBrie, one of the more impressive young men viewers are ever likely to encounter. As a child, LaBrie was burned over 95 percent of his body when a water heater exploded. His graphic recounting of that accident – of watching his body literally melting away in the flames – is mesmerizing. “I remember all of it,” LaBrie said. “It is a blessing and a curse.” Even more captivating is his buoyant attitude and the manner in which he attacks life and golf.
A year ago Roberts would have had to squeeze that story into a six- or seven-minute window. Now he can let it play out over two segments.
“We don’t always have that luxury, but I do on this show,” Roberts said.
Roberts spoke with Golfweek while wrapping up his duties for NBC at the Sochi Olympics. Given NBC’s long-time investment – both financial and cultural – in the Olympics, the reintroduction of golf into the Summer Games in 2016 will be a big story for the network and its Orlando-based division at Golf Channel.
“In Play” hits on that theme Monday with a profile of Olympic course architect Gil Hanse. It’s a fairly ambitious effort, taking viewers not just to Hanse’s home office in Pennsylvania, but also following the architect to the construction site in Brazil.
This no doubt would be considered heresy if I were to voice these words in the halls of NBC or Golf Channel, but my hunch is that Olympic golf won’t be nearly the seismic event that many in the industry hope it will be. Time will tell. But Roberts, who just completed coverage of his 15th Olympics, is a true believer.
“I’m a bit of a junkie. I love this stuff,” Roberts said. “I think Olympic golf is the perfect bone to chew on for Golf Channel because there’s going to be so much to talk about.”
It stands to reason that it will be a prime topic of discussion on future episodes of “In Play.”