Channel Vision

May 6, 2007

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.

(Tell Us: What do you think of Golf Channel’s coverage?)

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

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

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.

They didn’t.

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

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

“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?

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

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

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

“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

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,

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

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

“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

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.

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

“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

“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

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.”

The Static

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.”

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.

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.

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

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.

Coming Up

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

“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.