With the highly anticipated second year of Fox Sports’ signature golf event coverage, there are many outstanding questions on how the coverage of the season’s second major will improve from a year ago. For Golf News Net, that means a before, during and after analysis of the coverage.
As was discussed in the midway grades, Fox will be judged in two completely different ways. First, how did coverage this year compare to the maiden voyage in 2015? Secondly, how does it compare to the golf coverage of other networks? The answers: 2016 was a huge step forward for the network in terms of covering one of golf’s biggest weeks, but there is still a gap when it comes to Fox looking up at CBS and NBC/Golf Channel.
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With critics, fans and doubters paying close attention this year, it’s easy to award a passing grade to Fox because of the progress being made. The day after the U.S. Open, the discussion is on the tournament, the players, the course and a rules controversy, not the television coverage. That’s a win for Fox.
Paul Azinger – While there were moments where he was given a bit too much time to fill, he never lacked for comment, was incredibly prepared for any number of circumstances and used his humor well to keep long days loose for viewers and the crew. In the most important part of the week, he took a hard-line stand on the Dustin Johnson rules controversy. You could see his agitation, and he echoed the sentiment of his colleagues (and fans) who felt the USGA made a mistake in the moment. A year removed from a broadcast that wouldn’t challenge the greens at Chambers Bay, and a lead analyst that wouldn’t rock the boat, it was what Azinger needed to provide.
The lead analyst of any golf crew is the most vital person in the broadcast, and Azinger’s addition lived up to the expectations all had for him when replacing Greg Norman. It was a no-brainer for Fox, and paid the most dividends.
The sound – While there aren’t many elements where Fox tops the competition, the use of sound has to be considered the industry leader right now. The ambient noises were great, the sounds of impact were consistent, and the player chatter was spectacular. There was a tremendous back-and-forth between Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller highlighted on Saturday, and plenty of preparation and reaction from the leaders on Sunday.
Some would say golf on television would be perfect with unlimited sound from the course (mic up the players and/or caddies) with minimal announcers. If other telecasts can duplicate the audio overload Fox showed (within budget, of course), it could change how viewers watch golf tournaments.
ProTracer – It’s the future of watching golf on television, and it’s not as difficult to make available more often than one would think. Fox has oversaturated broadcasts with it and is an industry leader again. It’s not perfect every time, and technical glitches will happen more with the amount of use, but that’s not totally on the network. The use of it side-by-side with an overhead of the hole tracing the path is tremendous as well.
Gil Hanse at Oakmont – Hanse got mixed reviews at Chambers Bay last year, mainly because he was put in a bad spot as an architect with the issues and controversy. This year, he seemed more assured and comfortable in his complementary role. He stretched beyond just talking about the course and was able to describe how it tests players and how they, in turn, react.
The depth – While there aren’t a ton of superstars (Ken Brown should now have more domestic fans), 2016 did feel like a team effort for Fox. Announcers were in the right place (like Holly Sonders this year) and nobody felt out of place or totally overmatched. With wall-to-wall coverage across multiple networks, and some marathon days due to rain, the mix of voices worked well.
On-course reporters – While the depth was good, there are still holes in the lineup, most notably on the course itself. The lack of energy and timely reports from the course were noticeable, especially during crunch time on Sunday. Curtis Strange had to be teed up with questions to provide commentary and shifted into the role of analyst instead of reporting what was taking place with his group. Juli Inkster was almost completely absent, as was Brown. Scott McCarron got the majority of the work, and had his highlight foreshadowing Dustin Johnson’s use of the rules to get a favorable drop out of a nasty lie in the rough. But, his energy is still somber. He knows how to work into the flow of the broadcast, but it felt as if he was filling a role, not entertaining and educating.
Fox would be wise to invest in a proven commodity, if one were willing to take the leap. Could a Mark Rolfing, Billy Kratzert or Andy North be lured away from present commitments? There isn’t a Feherty or Maltbie waiting in the wings, but Strange seems best in a booth, and a confident and competent on-course reporter could add the same boost to the coverage as Azinger’s addition did this year.
Unnecessary toys – Fox is going to experiment, and they should. But when the experiments go wrong, it makes for uncomfortable television. At one point on Saturday, the virtual 3D display of a hole in front of analyst Mark Brooks looked cool, but Brooks couldn’t figure out where to point, and it totally rattled his train of thought. The grids on greens had many excited (including this column) but never provided the desired outcome.
The risk taking – There will be hiccups with so many balls in the air. The open-mic philosophy caught a few choice words from players, most notably Dustin Johnson’s s-bomb early Sunday’s final round. There were sound gaffes much of the weekend with so many audio switches having to take place. With so many moving pieces, the production will never be perfect, but, under the microscope, there was enough for critics to mutter under the breath about the growing pains still taking place to find a flow.
The rest of the field – While the constant mini leaderboard is something other networks should take notice of, Fox continues to alienate many golf fans by focusing on a small segment of the field. There are very few flips through the whole leaderboard, and little use of a ticker or scroll to give fans perspective on what other players are doing. The story on the weekend is the leader(s) and those in pursuit of a win, but more respect paid to the rest of the field would endear Fox to the pickiest segment of the viewership.
The rhythm – Fox got noticeably better in 2016, even with the lack of dynamic on-course voices. But there are still periods of time when the telecast didn’t know what it wanted to be. For instance: Sunday’s visit with Jack Nicklaus. The leaders were approaching the turn, and the telecast welcomed in Mr. Nicklaus to talk about Arnold Palmer. There was then an uncomfortable transition back to live golf, where nobody wanted to take the lead. It bogged down what was a good flow, and it took a while to recover.
No voice of golf – For all of the history of the United States Open, Fox doesn’t seem to have somebody to go to when it comes to expanding on the story. Shane Bacon doubles as a golf writer/reporter for the network, but was noticeably absent most of Sunday evening (did he interview anybody?). There is no essayist (think Tom Rinaldi) or knowledgeable sage (even Jim Nantz could be considered one) to help add gravitas and emotion to the telecast. Going all in on Joe Buck meant he had to exit the tower to handle the winner’s interview, leaving Shane O’Donoghue to fill the chair, and his big gaps of dead air led one to believe he either wasn’t ready to be there, or didn’t know what to say.
Fox needs to find somebody to fill that void. It may be somebody on the roster already, but there were plenty of spots (trying to run down the Johnson rules situation, for one) where having that person would have really helped.
At the end of the day, this U.S. Open is about Dustin Johnson and the USGA’s fumbling of a rules situation. It’s not about the telecast. The social media chatter was noticeably quiet about the coverage. That’s a huge sign of improvement. For 2016, Fox answered as many questions as the winner of the tournament. They can compete on the big stage, and maybe this is the start of something even better.