ESPN, CBS collaborate for Masters broadcast

April 10, 2009

The Masters on CBS has been a TV constant for 54 years.

But The Masters on ESPN? That seems a strange mix, sort of like U2 playing the Vatican.

The sedate pace of The Masters seems to be a clash with the ESPN philosophy. Turning to ESPN to watch Thursday’s coverage, you half expected to have the “PTI” crew break in to debate Tiger’s game, caddies’ uniforms, Butler cabin decor, the amount of dye in Rae’s Creek, and the need to survive Amen Corner.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

“It was our guys on the air and our production, just as it was for more than a decade when the USA Network broadcast the first two days of the Masters,” said Sean McManus, president CBS News and Sports. “Mike Tirico was the ESPN host just as USA Network had its own host [Bill Macatee].

“We’ve done the same thing in collaborating with TNT at the PGA Championship, and we’ll be working with ESPN again at the U.S. Open,” said McManus. “Back when NBC acquired USA Network, Dick Ebersol [chairman, NBC Sports and Olympics] came down to Augusta, and immediately people started whispering, ‘They’re going to try to get the TV rights to The Masters.’ But Dick made it clear he was there to oversee the cable coverage with no ulterior motives. He wanted to serve the tournament and its viewers as well as possible.

“It’s the same with ESPN. We know the ESPN people very well at every level and are comfortable working with them. George Bodenheimer [ESPN president] and I are good friends as well as neighbors. For us, Thursday was business as usual.”

For ESPN, having these partial rights to The Masters is a huge business proposition. It gives the network across-the-board access. Thus ESPN’s signature “SportsCenter” program is originating from the grounds of Augusa National this weekend; is carrying the first two rounds; ESPN Radio’s Dan Davis is doing regular updates; and ESPN International and ESPN Deportes have live first- and second-round coverage.

At CBS, “business as usual” means constantly improving the coverage. McManus calls CBS’s multiplatform coverage “a bigger production than the Super Bowl.”

Navigate to, and you’re in the midst of the future of sports broadcasting. You can view picture-in-picture video with choices of coverage from Amen Corner, Holes 15-16, player interviews, and the live leaderboard. There’s even a “Fanboard” with viewers’ comments scrolling as they’re submitted.

The broadcast quality is amazingly sharp, even when viewed on a 7-year-old home computer.

CBS is prepared as can be. After all, it has Augusta’s holes permanently wired (with fiber optic cable) for this annual week.

On TV, the signature voice of The Masters is Jim Nantz. He’s been working this tournament for 24 years and has been the host for CBS’s coverage since 1988. His voice is synonymous with the tournament, and that’s about the highest compliment one can pay a broadcaster.

Fortunately for all, Tiger Woods always seems to be front and center at The Masters.

His 1997 victory remains the most-watched golf broadcast in history (14.1 rating/31 audience share), with an estimated 43 million viewers tuned to all or part of the broadcast. (A rating point equals one percent of the nation’s television homes; audience share is the percentage of televisions in use tuned to a broadcast.)

What will this weekend bring?

“Everything looks wonderful at this point,” McManus said Thursday as Tiger walked the 18th fairway at three under par.

Tiger would bogey that hole, but he’s in the hunt.

“That’s all we can ask, and our fingers are crossed that he’ll stay there,” said McManus.