When Jim Nantz returns to the task of presenting live golf this weekend, he knows the job will feel nothing like the one he’s done for decades.
Viewers typically see Nantz seated alongside analyst Nick Faldo. Thanks to restrictions posed by the coronavirus pandemic, however, over the course of four days of the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Challenge telecast on both NBCUniversal’s Golf Channel as well as CBS Sports, Nantz will hold forth on his own in Fort Worth, at the event, with Faldo weighing in from thousands of miles away – from Orlando.
“This is one of the great challenges I’ve seen ever in my 30 or 35 years” of broadcasting the sport, Nantz said Monday during a conference call with reporters. He will have no face-to-face meetings with his crew and producers and will have to prepare himself for some new techniques CBS Sports plans to introduce to coverage. “I will be there alone.”
The return of PGA Tour golf after 90 days is something many fans are likely to celebrate. Behind the scenes, however, lie a host of logistical challenges that are forcing many changes in the way TV networks bring sports to life. While both CBS Sports and Golf Channel will air the events, both networks will rely on the same announcers and crew – a bid to cut the personnel around the tournament by more than half. CBS Sports has asked players to agree to wear mikes so that some of the things they say over the course of their effort can be heard by the audience. Players have also been asked to make a quick stop in front of an unmanned camera and offer a few thoughts about the game in progress that can be used as short clips later in the broadcast. Some golfers, however, are likely to turn down the request.
Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, has supervised Super Bowl broadcasts and college basketball championships. But he will be as enmeshed in this week’s golf games as he has been in those major sports milestones. “This is the most complex production, probably, I have ever been involved in,” says McManus, who has been working in TV sports since 1977. His team has spent two months trying to figure out how to produce the broadcasts.
Much of the crew that handle graphics, editing, replays and more will be stationed in Golf Channel studios in Orlando, Los Angeles, New York, Stamford, Conn., and New Zealand. And CBS Sports will add more mobile units and reconfiguring its trucks to provide more space for personnel on site.
Many media companies are betting on golf to help revive live sports – the one TV format that continues to draw the medium’s biggest, broadest audiences even though more consumers are migrating to streaming, on-demand video. Unlike close-contact sports like football, basketball and hockey, golf can be played with participants removed from close proximity with one another. NBC, CBS and ESPN under normal circumstances fill their weekends with hours of golf, such as the Masters. Their ties to the sport were made quite clear in March when ESPN, CBS and NBC agreed to a new nine-year pact with PGA Tour that could total at least $680 million.
A round on the links, however, is already a tough proposition for TV networks. Golfers often demand near-silence so they can concentrate. And there is usually significant time lapse from one player’s time on an individual hole and the next. “Golf is difficult to produce to begin with,” said McManus. “When you put the layer of complexity on top of it, it becomes even more difficut and even more challenging to figure out how to produce the most difficult sport that there is to produce in a new and different way.”
Nantz says he will have to work his way through not having audio cues from the crowd after a player sinks a tough shot or nails an important moment. And he may well be called upon to bring in dialogue from players who agree to be miked to the proceedings. “It’s going to be one of the things that we are going to have to figure out how to play naturally,” he said.
Producers have found comfort in rivals’ recent efforts to bring the spirit of sports back to TV. CBS’ McManus said he was encouraged by both ESPN’s telecast of the NFL Draft, which included winning moments of coaches and general managers watching the proceedings from home with their families, as well as WarnerMedia’s recent broadcast of a celebrity-golf tournament between Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, in which the players’ remarks could be easily head at certain times.
The four days of golf may end up being one of TV’s biggest production experiments – with the results seen by viewers in real time. “I think we are going to get a lot of it right,” said McManus. “And I think we are goign to learn a lot of lessons.”