A little before eight o'clock on Jan. 4, the day of the first round of the 2007 Mercedes-Benz Championship, two dozen Golf Channel staffers gathered in a trailer on the periphery of the Plantation course in Kapalua, Hawaii.
The surroundings belied the supposed glamour of television: The dank trailer had faux-wood paneling, an ugly linoleum floor and a cottage-cheese ceiling, and you could've gotten heartburn by looking at the table of snacks that passed for breakfast, including licorice and potato chips.
The vibe in the trailer was intense. For the previous year the easiest shot in golf was any directed at Golf Channel. Despite a lineup liberally sprinkled with infomercials and B-list tournaments, Golf Channel had stunned the sports world in January 2006 by announcing a 15-year contract to become the exclusive cable home of the PGA Tour, providing early-round telecasts of every tournament and full coverage of 13 events; the '07 Mercedes would be the first tournament to be televised under the deal.
Leaving ESPN with Tiger Woods in his prime was a monumental gamble for the Tour, and back at the Plantation course Golf Channel personnel were beginning to understand what was at stake.
"There's no denying the pressure," on-course announcer Jerry Foltz said as he waited for the meeting to begin. "We know everyone is waiting for us to fail."
For years Foltz had been a stalwart of the Nationwide tour coverage. Golf Channel is an intensely loyal, insular organization, and rather than cherry-pick brand-name talent, it promoted from within, meaning a significant career upgrade for a guy like the 44-year-old Foltz.
(The obvious exception to the insider preference is former ABC and current CBS analyst Nick Faldo, who was wooed by a multimillion-dollar deal to also lead Golf Channel's coverage.)
With his debut in the big time still hours away, Foltz was already radiating adrenaline. "I'm so sick of hearing about ESPN," he said, almost growling. "We're going to make people forget ESPN ever covered golf."
At eight o'clock sharp the meeting began, conducted by executive producer Keith Hirshland. He's a pro, a 30-year veteran of the TV wars, and his soothing voice and efficient manner seemed to have a calming effect within the trailer.
He methodically ran through the upcoming segments and what he expected from each announcer and technician. About the only win-one-for-the-Gipper moment was Hirshland's closing remark: "We've prepared for this, so let's go do it."
"Should we put our hands in a circle together and say, 'One, two, three Golf Channel?'" Foltz asked.
A few hours later the live coverage kicked off with a preview show. In the control truck Hirshland narrated the moment, counting backward from five and then barking, "We're hot!"
Kelly Tilghman began the telecast with expansive opening remarks. It was a historic day for this 37-year-old homegrown talent, who began as an intern in the Golf Channel video library and was now becoming the first woman to do play-by-play full time for a major men's sport on a national level.
In the trailer her face had been tight, and she obsessively pounded her laptop, scouring for last-minute minutiae. Now, on-air, she seemed poised and even a little saucy. Noting the absence of Tiger Woods, Tilghman remarked, in her best gossip-show patois, that Woods and his wife had recently announced they had "a bun in the oven."
In the truck Hirshland groaned. "Oh, my. That's probably the first time in Golf Channel history anyone's ever said that. I sure hope it is."
In the truck six staffers monitored a grid of 72 video screens that showed everything that was happening around the Plantation course. They communicated by headsets with the on-course talent, cameramen and support staff. (Golf Channel had imported more than 100 workers for the week.)
Through headphones it was possible to hear a halfdozen people talking over each other, the snippets of conversation somehow finding their way to the right person.
"I don't care about John Rollins arriving at the clubhouse is there anybody better?"
"Is Dottie (Pepper) supposed to be wearing an Adidas shirt?"
"Rocco (Mediate), just so you know, you'll be on camera while the questions are being asked, so don't make any funny faces."
"Can someone get a shot of the rainbow? Please."
There was no yelling, no snafus and no sense of impending doom. Watching contentedly in the back of the truck was Don McGuire, senior vice president of programming. He was brought in to help shepherd Golf Channel into its new era, a familiar proposition for a onetime TNT executive who oversaw the NBA's arrival at that network in the late 1980s.
That was, at the time, considered a highrisk move for the league. Now the NBA and TNT are comfortably intertwined, and the Golf Channel-PGA Tour parallel escapes no one in McGuire's orbit.
"We've always looked at this as doable," said McGuire. "We've got the know-how and the manpower. Covering golf is what we do, and it has been for more than a decade. Been there, done that."
As the preview show ended and the real golf was about to begin, Golf Channel CEO Dave Manougian settled in front of a TV back in the trailer. He has been with the channel since its inception in 1994, and it was his relentless wooing of Tour commissioner Tim Finchem that helped clinch the game-changing contract.
As the telecast began with a jazzy new theme song, Manougian leaned back in his chair and said, "This is the most important moment in the channel's history."
If Faldo and Tilghman were feeling the pressure up in the broadcast tower, it was hard to tell. The interior of the tower was a rich green, and it was as intimate as the backseat of a VW bug. Faldo chugged Red Bull at every opportunity, and his dapper on-camera look was compromised somewhat by the dusty tennis shoes and sockless ankles that could be spied under his desk, invisible to viewers at home.
In 2006 Faldo became a star at ABC with his irreverent humor, and he spent most commercial breaks teasing Tilghman like an older brother, which she is used to, having grown up as the only girl in a family of five kids.
To foster their chemistry, they had spent the previous months hanging out around Orlando, sitting courtside at a Magic game and having cookouts at Faldo's home with other Golf Channel staffers.
In Hawaii, Kelly and Nick went hiking together, and she tried to teach him to surf. ("A 6'3" Englishman on a surfboard is not a pretty sight," she reports.)
An enthusiastic triathlete, Tilghman had recently introduced Faldo to a new exercise to tone his abs, and this came up during one of the Mercedes's commercial breaks.
"Can you last 15 minutes?" she asked him.
"That's not a proper thing to say to a fellow," Faldo replied, smirking.
Tilghman didn't get his drift. "That's the first one that's gone over her head," Faldo said to no one in particular.
Perking up, Tilghman said, "Is this our first gender issue?"
He whispered in her ear what he was talking about.
Tilghman flushed a bit and said, "Oh, jeez."
Faldo loosed a wicked cackle, and then they were back on the air. Shortly after the telecast ended, the same employees crammed into the same grungy trailer in which they had gathered 10 hours earlier. It was supposed to be a postmortem on the telecast, but it felt more like a party, with the mood bordering on giddiness. (A freelancer with many years in the business would later say, "I have never seen a bunch of TV people so elated in my life.")
Manougian commanded the floor.
"I want all of you to know how proud I am of you," said the CEO, his voice filled with emotion. "A lot of people have been doubting Golf Channel, but I always believed in my heart we could pull this off."
He shared the news that Finchem had called mid-telecast to rave about the coverage.
The party continued down the hill at the Ritz-Carlton, where the talent and the top execs gathered, and four bottles of bubbly were popped. After a series of saccharine toasts, the lounge cleared out in a matter of minutes.
"There's no time to party," said Manougian. "We have another show to do tomorrow."
The telecasts keep coming, relentlessly, and next week Golf Channel will enjoy another milestone as it televises the first two rounds of the Players Championship, the Tour's flagship event.
"It's our Super Bowl," says Manougian, and as such it will come with the attendant hype and overexposure.
The first two rounds each will have a whopping six hours of live coverage. The golf will be sandwiched by four hours of pre- and postgame shows, live from the Stadium course. All of this will be followed by a condensed three-hour replay of the on-course action.
For two days in May, from 11 a.m. until midnight, Golf Channel will feature nothing but the Players Championship. This wall-to-wall coverage will neatly highlight Golf Channel's symbiotic relationship with the Tour.
"It's a big week for us, a big week for them," says Finchem. "There's been a lot of talk about the new date for the tournament, about how the course will play firmer and faster, but the real change this year is television. With limited commercials" only four minutes per hour, same as the Masters "and the entire broadcast in high definition, it will clearly be the second-best stage in golf, and I don't mind being second to Augusta. Golf Channel is a huge part of taking us to another level."
How Golf Channel became such a key player is a tale years in the making. Few people remember now, but when the channel debuted in January 1995, it was a subscription service, like HBO (though cheaper). That experiment lasted less than a year, with Golf Channel evolving into an advertiser-supported network.
Paying the bills was not as hard as persuading cable operators to offer the fledgling channel; it wasn't until July 1997 that Golf Channel reached 10 million households. Slowly but surely the channel increased its distribution by creating demand through improved programming, with an emphasis on live coverage of the European tour, LPGA, Nationwide and senior tours; news and highlights shows; instruction with big-name swing gurus; and a few stabs at original programming, most notably The Big Break.
By 2001 Golf Channel was a nice niche network, available in about 40 million households and turning a tidy profit as advertisers were drawn to the affluent demographic.
The landscape began to change in May '01, when Comcast, one of Golf Channel's original investors, paid a reported $365 million to buy out partner Fox and assume an ownership stake of more than 90%.
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is one of the titans of the new media world, celebrated for his visionary thinking. He is also a passionate golfer with a single-digit handicap who counts Finchem as one of his golf buddies.
In December 2003 Comcast bought out all remaining parties to take 100% ownership of Golf Channel, and that is the first entry on the time line of how the PGA Tour came to Golf Channel.
"When Comcast made it totally theirs, Brian made it very clear to me that they'd like to aggressively expand their relationship with us," says Finchem.
By the end of 2003 Golf Channel's household reach was nearly 60 million, which represented solid growth but was still far from the 90 million benchmark at which a network is considered more or less universal. Landing the PGA Tour would be invaluable in Golf Channel's long-standing struggle to entice more cable companies to carry the channel, or to move it from a pricey special tier to basic service.
Manougian spent all 2004 and much of '05 putting a full-court press on Finchem.
"Every time I would see Tim, I would emphasize our interest," Manougian says. "There were so many casual conversations, a lot of, 'Wouldn't it be interesting if. . . .'"
Golf Channel's interest was a no-brainer, but for the Tour there was more potential downside, given that the networks that for years had televised its tournaments' first two rounds, ESPN and USA Network, each reach around that "universal" figure of 90 million households.
But golf was not a top priority for either channel, as each allotted only a two-hour window amid a variety of other programming. (Many golf fans came to loathe Walker: Texas Ranger because at six o'clock sharp, Eastern time, USA would cut to a rerun of the cheeseball Chuck Norris vehicle no matter what was happening on the course.)
In the late summer of 2005 negotiations heated up with the Tour. Golf Channel's biggest carrot was six hours of coverage a day, half of it live, with a replay in prime time.
"That was huge, just from the perspective of the fans," says Finchem. "To have a very consistent platform for the fan to find us week after week meant a lot, too. We already had a good programming relationship with Golf Channel through the Champions and Nationwide tours, and we knew a lot about their people and had a lot of respect for them. From the standpoint of production quality they made it quite clear they were willing to do whatever it takes, and we didn't doubt that. So when we got comfortable with the idea of an exclusive relationship, then it became, How do we build the platform together?"
This would require more than the traditional four-year deal.
"I'm not sure if there's much difference between 15 years or 12 or 10," says Manougian. "To increase our distribution, we obviously needed a long-term commitment from the Tour, but quite honestly, once you get past six or eight years you sort of say, Well, we might as well go for it now!"
The contract was announced on Jan. 11, 2006, in a conference call featuring Manougian, Finchem and execs from the other networks.
"It was a big secret within our company because up to that point the details were still being finalized," says Manougian.
The anniversary of the channel's first broadcast is Jan. 17, which it celebrates every year with a big barbecue on the back deck of its headquarters. This time, Manougian had scheduled the party a little early.
"Right from the conference call I walked out to personally address the company," he says. "Everyone erupted. They went crazy. Other than launching the network, it was the most fun, celebratory moment we've had as a company."
Outside golf channel headquarters the reaction to the deal was less euphoric, particularly among Tour players, whose livelihoods are directly affected by TV contracts. Fred Funk called it "shocking," adding, "How do you commit to 15 years when so much can happen in that time?"
In a widely circulated quote, Paul Azinger said, "You go into any restaurant or bar in America, and the TV is tuned to ESPN. It would have been better to give (the broadcast rights) away and have it carried on ESPN." (Never mind that Azinger was working for ESPN as an announcer at the time.)
The ESPN-at-the-bar argument is intoxicating, but dispassionate observers question its validity.
"The research has always shown that golf is primarily destination viewing for hard-core fans," says Craig Moffett, a cable analyst with the leading Wall Street research firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "It has never been a big part of the culture where people sit around at a bar and drink and casually keep an eye on the TV."
ESPN's ubiquity is always a given in any comparison, but in the year between the announcement of the Tour deal and the first telecast, Golf Channel pushed its distribution above 75 million households.
Says Moffett, "In practical terms there's not much difference between 75 and 90. Golf Channel is almost always offered on newer digital tiers, which skews to a much more affluent demographic. The 15 million who don't get the channel are almost exclusively analog customers, and those households probably don't have many golf fans anyway."
The debate about Golf Channel viewership took an interesting turn during the Mercedes-Benz Championship when, the day before the inaugural telecast, The Orlando Sentinel published some startling ratings numbers.
Citing Nielsen research, the story reported "the average total number of people watching from Aug. 18 (2006) to Dec. 24 over a 24-hour day."
ESPN weighed in with 1.15 million, while Golf Channel had a minuscule 44,000. In a flash these numbers were picked up by other news outlets.
In Maui, Golf Channel execs were apoplectic that the period of time selected came during the heart of ESPN's football season the slowest time of the year for golf. All of this set the stage for the release of the early-season ratings, surely the most scrutinized digits in golf since Robert de Vicenzo botched his scorecard at the 1968 Masters.
Following the Mercedes, Street & Smith's Sports Business Daily reported that the '07 numbers a daily average of 370,728 households were down 44% from ESPN's four-round coverage a year earlier. Again, the report was widely cited.
There is a more nuanced way to look at the ratings. Street & Smith's, like most media outlets, reported only the numbers for the live telecast. Golf Channel research over the season's first four months has found that 92% of the viewers of the prime-time reair didn't watch the earlier telecast during the day. (Frankly, you have to wonder about the 8% who do watch it twice.)
Golf Channel's thinking is, "It's not a replay, it's a second chance," says spokesman Dan Higgins. So in calculating viewership, Golf Channel combines both telecasts since they have essentially two audiences. Using that measuring stick, the number of households for the Mercedes was off only 18% from ESPN's '06 numbers.
Using the combined numbers again, Golf Channel surpassed the previous year's ratings by the third tournament of the year, as both the first and the second round of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic pulled in higher ratings than they did in '06. Thursday at Pebble Beach did too.
Golf Channel's first blockbuster came with the Accenture Match Play Championship in late February, when its combined telecasts beat ESPN's '06 numbers three days running.
During Friday's action, when Tiger Woods was in a dogfight with Nick O'Hern, Golf Channel pulled a combined 1.7 rating, the highest in the channel's history, accounting for just under 1.3 million households.
"Candidly, we're delighted with the numbers," says Finchem. "We feel as if we're two years ahead of where we anticipated we'd be."
The Tour is also enjoying the effects of strong crosspromotion, with ratings for the Champions tour up by 41% so far in '07.
The solid viewership has helped placate a nervous corporate world. Before the start of the year the doomsday scenario was that the ratings would tank, tournament sponsors would rethink their commitments, and various sponsors would demand to renegotiate their endorsement deals with the players because what's the point of paying someone to wear your logo if no one's watching?
Finchem insists that he hasn't had any complaints from tournament sponsors about the new TV deal. On the issue of individual endorsements Joe Ogilvie, a player director on the PGA Tour policy board, says, "I have not heard about any push back on that. I think everyone was taking a wait-and-see attitude, and since Golf Channel has already started to prove itself as viable, it's become a nonissue."
Beyond the ratings, Golf Channel faced other perception problems. During the first three tournaments of the year the Mercedes, the Sony Open and the Hope live coverage was extended beyond the scheduled telecast window on five occasions, and a sixth bit of bonus time contained one of the most memorable events of the season: Tadd Fujikawa's star turn at the Sony.
In the second round Fujikawa, the amiable 16-year-old Hawaiian who was trying to become the youngest competitor to a make a cut on the Tour in 50 years, was sent off in the last pairing of the day.
The telecast ended with Fujikawa on the 16th hole, but from the Post Game Show studio in Orlando, Golf Channel kept cutting back to the action to keep viewers updated.
Thus fans watched live as Fujikawa made a thrilling eagle on the 18th hole to make the cut, setting off a madcap celebration. It was a textbook example of the flexibility and vitality Golf Channel can bring to its coverage.
However, beginning with the fourth event of the year, the Buick Invitational, the networks entered the mix. Whereas Golf Channel had supplied all the staff for the first three tournaments, now the producers, technicians, cameramen and a handful of announcers were network employees essentially being rented by Golf Channel for two days. And suddenly it seemed as if Golf Channel was no longer willing to stay on the air to chase the story.
On Friday at the Buick the telecast ended abruptly in favor of the Post Game Show as leader Brandt Snedeker was playing the 18th hole.
A few days later Phil Mushnick, the influential TV critic for the New York Post, wrote, "First time we saw a postgame show with the game still on!"
After a few more interrupted telecasts, Mushnick wrote one more in a string of acidic items: "For a third straight week the widespread and idyllic belief that Golf Channel, because it's Golf Channel, will stick with live coverage . . . has proven painfully false. Unless PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem steps in to fix this absurdity . . . we can only surmise he doesn't much care that Golf Channel doesn't serve viewers any better than if he'd made the deal with the Take A Hike Channel."
Just saying the word Mushnick around Golf Channel staffers makes their eyelids begin to twitch, and Manougian becomes animated in his defense of his network.
"We're Golf Channel of course we want to stay on the air," he says. "That's what we do. But Thursday and Friday we don't control the telecasts, CBS or NBC does, and there's a huge amount of confusion over that."
Indeed there is. Lance Barrow, CBS's coordinating producer for golf, says, "It's their telecast we're simply handling the technical side. We do what they want us to do."
Golf Channel is known to be thrifty, and it has been whispered that the telecasts haven't been extended because it doesn't want to pay overtime to network employees. But Don McGuire estimates it costs only about $5,000 to stay on the air for an extra half hour and says money is a "nonfactor" in the decision-making.
The real problem is that the way the TV contract is structured, neither Golf Channel nor the networks nor the Tour has the authority to decree whether or not to extend coverage. The decision needs to be a consensus, and the discussions have to happen in real time as the telecast window is closing.
Belatedly recognizing the inherent complications in this arrangement, Finchem says, "It is an issue, and it's under discussion among us and Golf Channel and the two networks. It has not been totally resolved yet, but we're looking at a system where, when discretion is necessary, it has to leave us, the Tour, in the driver's seat."
Manougian is looking forward to a change in policy.
"How we are able to manage our brand properly is a big concern of mine going forward," he says. "The bottom line is, we look bad going off the air, and the viewers at home don't really care about the reasons for it. They only want to see golf."
And lots of it.
Two weeks ago in New Orleans, following a taxing telecast spent trying to enliven a starless tournament, Faldo gingerly descended from the 18th-hole tower. Don't look so weary, Nick, you have only 14 years and five months to go.
"Crumbs, it's astonishing to think how long this contract is," said the 49-year-old Faldo. "If I'm not careful, I could wind up doing this until I'm 65!"
For all the scrutiny, the opening four months of this season are merely the prelude.
Just as Golf Channel has all the time it needs to further refine its coverage, there is plenty of room to grow in other ways. USA Network is now out of the golf business but for one notable exception: televising the first two rounds of the Masters. Might Golf Channel be interested in taking over those duties too?
"We stay focused on what we're doing," Manougian says, nearly pulling a muscle trying to swallow his smile. A source at Augusta National says, intriguingly, "All of our TV contracts are for one year, and we will review our relationship with USA this summer."
The British Open may also be in play after 2009, when the contract expires for ESPN and ABC, two other networks that have been marginalized in golf's new TV landscape. No tournament cries out for a prime-time re-air like the British Open since the live telecast ends during brunch hour in the western U.S.
If Golf Channel is going to snag the sport's most important events, it needs to continue to expand its reach.
According to Manougian, a series of ongoing negotiations with various cable operators should be resolved by the summer, at which point the total number of households will exceed 80 million.
Two other points of emphasis are: increasing the number of hotel chains that carry Golf Channel which may or may not be related to the public griping of some players that they often can't see the channel while on the road and getting more penetration in and around New York City.
Neither of the two big providers in New York, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable (owned by SI's parent company, Time Warner), currently offers Golf Channel as part of its basic service; Cablevision provides it as part of a sports package for an extra $4.95 a month, while Time Warner has Golf Channel on a tier that costs about $20 a month more than standard basic service.
"Everybody wants to be on basic," says Mark Harrad, Time Warner Cable's vice president of corporate communications. "Hey, I'd like a beachfront house, but it doesn't mean that's going to happen, either. To put a new channel on the dial means pulling something else off, and one thing about TV viewers, they get very, very angry if you take away something they like."
Manougian is undeterred. "It's really a matter of when, not if, we get to 90 million," he says.
Finchem says the Tour will be satisfied if it happens by 2010, but he adds, he doubts it will take that long.
Seemingly, one audience Golf Channel has already captured is the PGA Tour rank and file, thanks to the rahrah tone of the coverage.
"They push the Tour hard, no question," says Kenny Perry. "They want to tell our stories. It's great for (the) young guys to get their names and faces out there. They'll get way more exposure than they would have with anybody else."
Lucas Glover is one of the young guys Perry is referring to, and he seems content to spend most of the rest of his career playing on Golf Channel.
"Coming up on the Nationwide tour, I got to know a lot of their guys pretty good, so there's a comfort level," the 27-year-old Glover says. "I'll do pretty much anything they ask me to."
Television contracts always drive purse increases, and though the terms of Golf Channel's deal with the Tour have not been made public, Finchem says, "Our financial models have taken us out six years, which is the period of time we did with the networks. The financial benefits to the players will grow about $100 million a year. On a percentage basis it's not quite as great as the last six years, although it's off a significantly higher base."
What happens after the first six years has yet to be decided. The savvier Tour pros understand that their fortunes are now directly linked to Golf Channel's.
"There's no question all of us benefit as the channel grows," says Ogilvie. "There are kickers in the contract to guarantee that. I think players are slowly starting to realize we're married to the channel, so to speak. It's in our best interests to help it succeed."
Thirteen years into an unlikely success story, Golf Channel has gone from a mere purveyor of programming to part of the larger story. "We're like a teenager everyone has an opinion on how we should grow up, what clothes we should wear and how we should cut our hair," says Golf Channel announcer Rich Lerner. "That's not a negative. It simply means that people care."
And like all adolescents, love 'em or hate 'em, this one's impossible to ignore.