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Ben Wright: Switching Channels

Appeared in the April 2007 LINKS

As someone who has spent more than 50 years in golf broadcasting, I often get asked my opinion of the Golf Channel, especially now that it has locked hands with the PGA Tour to air the first two rounds of every tournament (except majors). Numerous golf fanatics of my acquaintance are largely grateful for the network’s existence. But to a man they dislike much of the programming offered and are not shy of opining how they would improve it. Neither am I, although in the interest of full disclosure I should preface my critique by noting that I’ve had some unsatisfactory business dealings with the Golf Channel.

My biggest beef is with the endless loop of infomercials that now air primarily during the day. For one recent week, I counted more than 30 hours of “Product Showcase,” the channel’s euphemism for paid programming. They are no doubt very profitable and I could see why they were necessary during the channel’s birthing process, but now they only serve to cheapen the network’s image.

Run them at 3 a.m. if you must, but not in broad daylight, as was the case on a Sunday afternoon in early February. Granted, NBC was broadcasting the final round of the FBR Open, where Aaron Baddeley edged out Jeff Quinney, but why not counter-program with a replay of the 1974 Phoenix Open, in which Johnny Miller edged out Lanny Wadkins?

Seeing the likes of Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer in their prime on All Star Golf is a real treat, as are the reruns of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, but Golf Channel executives must be under the impression that viewers aren’t interested in seeing any tournaments that weren’t played in the last decade since they make up a majority of the re-broadcasts. Most of the people I’ve canvassed, however, would love to take a trip down Sansabelt way and see some of the best tournaments from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Here’s a good tip: When in doubt just cue up the 1986 Masters.

Of course, the best program on the channel is Golf Central, and the expanded hour-long version is a nice addition. But they don’t rerun it nearly enough. I’d also like to see a lot more of Rich Lerner, the best broadcaster on the network since the departure of Peter Kessler, who should be brought back forthwith, I might add. Lerner’s story-telling ability and ease in front of the camera should have landed him in the seat next to Nick Faldo on the tour telecasts.

I love the re-airing of PGA Tour telecasts in prime time, but I dislike shows like The Big Break, which only seems to lead to obscurity, or even oblivion. When the only thing at stake is a start or two on the Champions, Nationwide or LPGA tours, there’s no inherent drama.

Real golf fanatics would lap up shows on the game’s history, of which there’s a definite dearth. It is almost the Golf Channel’s public-interest duty to air as many hours as possible of enlightening chats with the superstars of yesteryear. I remember when former PGA Tour winner Steve Reid originated the long-running Inside the PGA Tour; we traveled to the Homestead in Virginia to interview the immortal Snead. I mainly just listened, totally fascinated, hardly getting a word in as he went on for hours. I would love to get my hands on those tapes today.   

Another thing the Golf Channel does very well is instruction, especially Playing Lessons from the Pros. But what about a show on golf course architecture with on-site visits with the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman? Travel shows are also lacking. In their place is fare like The Grey Goose 19th Hole, which is really just a thinly disguised infomercial, pardon me, Product Showcase.

C’mon, boys, the deal with the PGA Tour finally puts you in the big leagues now. Act like it.   

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