Mastering the formula

With the first weekend in April here, you can feel it in the air.  The Azaleas are in bloom, and the distinctive music is playing and hailing the call to the one golf tournament that every player wants to win…yes, it’s the Masters.

I’m going to tell you that I’m not much of a golf fan. I used to enjoy playing it, but haven’t touched a club in about a decade and probably won’t anytime soon.  I’m not going to sit and watch the John Deere Classic (even though I like John Deere), but I do watch some of the Greenbrier Classic because I spent 7 years of a my life in West Virginia and the resort is amazing, along with the majors and the so-called “5th major” the Players Championship in May.  Once football season starts, golf to people like me ceases to exist and it only begins this weekend for most casual fans.

The Masters is unlike any other golf tournament, not just from a player’s standpoint but from a broadcast standpoint as well.  From the players perspective, it is the only Major tournament that is played on the same course each year.  Likewise, while you can win big prize money (and the Masters won’t tell you how much that is), the real prize is the “green jacket” which symbolizes the exclusive club of Champions.  However, if you win one of those green jackets you aren’t wearing it out to dinner with your wife in mid-July or having a few friends over to look at it outside of the first year.  The rules state that the jacket must remain in a special room at Augusta National and you must return it within one year after winning the championship.  You’ll hear about so and so winning his “third green jacket”, but not really.  You only get one unless it has to be re-sized or something.  I’m not exactly sure how they guess the size of the jacket for the winner, but I imagine when Craig Stadler won his Masters that the tailor had never seen anything like trying to fit his fat ass.

This is the 61st year that CBS will televise the tournament.  While most broadcast agreements are long-term deals, that’s not the case with the Masters.  CBS works on a series of one year handshake deals.  Legally, that’s just fine as the law provides that any contract which can be performed within one year does not have to be in writing and so the Master’s contract is not.

And while the contract is not in writing, just about everything else is micro-managed by the boys in the green coats.  Understand, I have no issue with that.  It’s called Augusta National  Golf Club (don’t call it Augusta National  Country Club) because there aren’t any swimming pools or tennis courts.  It’s a private club which means that the members can invite who they want to join and if they don’t want a certain race or religion, then while you and I might think that’s offensive there’s nothing legally wrong with it.  Remember Martha Burk?  She’s the feminist who created such a stink in 2003 over Augusta National having no female members that she was organizing protests across the street from the Club.    The Masters went on as scheduled with the only hitch being that to protect CBS from a backlash August National and CBS presented the tournament sponsor free.  Burk hasn’t really been heard from since (guess that’s what you get for messing with the rich old white guys), but Augusta National has invited female members to join as well as African Americans and in the case of former Secretary of State Condeleza Rice, an African American female.  I’m reminded of the great line from Groucho Marx who said he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club who had him as a member and maybe, just maybe that fits Augusta National because they are strict with their broadcasting rules.

The Masters insists that the broadcasters refer to the gallery as patrons.  The rough is not “rough” but the second cut and some of those manning the microphone have found that Augusta National can be quite punitive if you cross the line.  Jack Whitaker was CBS’s lead announcer in the 1960s.  One year, he referred to the gallery at the 18th green as a “mob.”  Masters co-founder Clifford Roberts banned him from the grounds for several years.  CBS’s Gary McCord has received Pete Rose treatment from Augusta National.  As a broadcaster he stated that the greens at the course were so fast that they must have been coated with “bikini wax.”   He’s not been back to Augusta National since.  After all, what could offend a bunch of old, rich white guys more than the mention of a Bikini?  CBS is not allowed to promote any of its shows during the broadcast so you’ll hear no mention of the latest plot lines on the “Big Bang Theory” with the exception that the network can invite viewers in the final hour on Sunday to stay tuned for 60 minutes.  There are no sponsored graphics on the screen.  There goes the “Texas Pete” scoring cube Raycom uses on ACC football, and don’t bother looking at the sky, the Direct TV or Goodyear blimp is not permitted.  There are also only 4 minutes of commercial time per hour and so on Saturday when the broadcast comes on the air at 2:00 pm, you’ll be greated by something like this: “I’m Billy Payne the Chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club and thanks to our sponsors we’ll be bringing you 56 minutes of golf per hour.”  Augusta National has loosened the reigns a bit on the amount of broadcast hours and some other restrictions and I believe Paine (who was responsible for organizing the 1996 Atlanta Olympics) is probably to credit for that.  When the network started broadcasting the tournament in 1956, there was just one hour on Saturday and Sunday from holes 15 – 18.   This year CBS will get a total of 9 hours and ESPN which broadcasts essentially the CBS production on Thursday and Friday getting another 9.  That’s 18 hours total.  Contrast that with the U.S. Open in June which will pass 18 hours of broadcast time before Saturday’s third round even begins.  Augusta National for years refused to allow any action to be shown from the First 9 (don’t call it the front 9).  They finally relented and allowed 18 hole coverage in 2002.  Likewise, the rules say that the Master’s Chairman (in this case Paine) gets to speak first at the jacket ceremony in Butler Cabin after the final round on Sunday.  One year, former Chairman Hoard Hardin asked a very probing opening question to newly crowned champion Bernard Langer by asking him if he pronounced his name “Long-her” or Lang-her”.  Good stuff huh?

Some of the broadcasting’s icons have described the action at the tournament including Jim McKay (whose son Sean is now the Chairman of CBS Sports), the aforementioned Whittaker, Vin Scully, Pat Summerall, Verne Lundquist and now Jim Nantz.  For years CBS’s golf broadcasts were the industry standard.  It was a formula developed by a producer named Frank Chirkinian who revolutionized golf coverage by quick cuts from action on various holes and developing story lines around certain golfers.  Chirkinian who retired in 1996 and died in 2011 was apparently a gigantic pain the ass notorious for chewing out his broadcasters while they were on the air.  One story told by former CBS on-course reporter David Feherty is enlightening in that regard.  At one tournament, the tower announcer set up Feherty to say something from the course and when he remained silent, Chirkian reportedly said in his ear “say something you Irish prick.”

In my opinion however, CBS’s golf coverage while still excellent has been surpassed in production and talent by NBC (just watch the broadcast of the Players Championship in May), but there’s no chance NBC is ever getting to broadcast the Masters.  Lead analyst Johnny Miller is a lightning rod for criticism and given that no one ever really knows what’s coming out of his mouth, if NBC would somehow get the rights (and again, that ain’t happening), Miller would be banned for sure.  And there is one plus to Augusta National micro-managing every aspect of the broadcast.  ESPN can’t use Chris “the Blimp” Berman on its portion of the coverage.  Can you imagine that fat disheveled train wreck grunting his way through Thursday and Friday like he used to do on the first two days of the U.S. Open?  Again, I will never understand ESPN’s obsession with him particularly when the network boasts a broadcaster like Mike Tirico who anchors ESPN’s Master’s coverage and is fantastic at anything he does.

The bottom line is that Augusta National keeps CBS on a very short leash with its one-year handshake contracts.  Augusta National knows that if CBS tries to rock the boat and do something different that there are any number of broadcasters willing to comply with the rules and grab the rights to the tournament.  So, expect the expected on this weekend’s Master’s coverage because after 61 years if we’ve learned one thing it’s that CBS has “mastered” the formula.

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