The Golf Channel today (June 11) begins its live coverage of the four-day Charles Schwab Challenge PGA golf tournament, the first PGA Tour event since play was halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Golf Channel and CBS will offer 59 live hours of tournament coverage from the Colonial Country Club in Ft. Worth, Texas, all while implementing health screenings and safety protocols as well as a reduced on-site footprint.
Golf Channel executive producer Molly Solomon spoke to me on the eve of the tournament regarding the network’s production strategy -- Golf Channel and CBS for example will share one announcing crew -- as well as the network’s plans for covering a very busy PGA tournament schedule that is scheduled to extend into the fall. An edited version of the interview appears below.
What does the return of the PGA Tour to full time play mean for the Golf Channel?
It’s going to be great for golf fans and all of us who produce television to be back in the chair again. We have 11 hours of consecutive news and coverage from the tournament beginning at 9 am. (today). CBS produces the broadcast, including first and second round coverage for the Golf Channel, so this has been a collaborative process over the last month and a half to create a unified, linear broadcast production. CBS has had to reduce its personnel footprint, and yet they are going to give us everything we want in terms of three hours of coverage. Because they can’t have all of their announcers together, Jim Nantz is going to host all four rounds from Colonial and announcers Nick Faldo, Ian Baker-Finch and Frank Nobilo will be announcing from Golf Channel’s Morning Drive set in Florida. We wanted to give them the best technical setup to succeed remotely, so we were anxious to lean in and help our partners in whatever way we could.
Other than the lack of spectators, will viewers see anything different from a production standpoint with the tournament coverage?
We’re able to try some things like putting mics on the players and framing the action more intimately. We’ve always been interested in what the players say to their caddies and the interactions with their playing competitors. There is some hesitation from some players about wearing a mic, so we’re hopeful some of the players will lean in, and we'll get conversations that we haven’t had in the past. The audiences are in the loop in terms of what the restraints are for production, so I think imperfect is going to be accepted during this pandemic. All of us in television production really pride ourselves on the excellence and quality of the broadcasts, and CBS is going to be charged with providing the same amount of hours but with less people. They have a terrific production plan, so we’ll just be happy to see the sport back in action. We have the top five players starting at Colonial, so it starts with the action, and I think it's going to be terrific.
How difficult was it for the Golf Channel to get through the pandemic from a business and production standpoint?
The priority is and has always been the safety of our employees, and so initially when we were reduced to working from home we put on [PGA] tournament replays, which were really attractive for our audience. Slowly but surely our operations team really relied on their production ingenuity and created production control rooms from home. We were able to start producing news content with the anchors and directors at home, beginning with short form digital news and ramping up to doing half-hour shows from home. We felt with the tournaments coming back that we were ready to bring people back to the building, but in very limited numbers. There’s a health and safety plan in place, but it was time to get back to doing what we do when the PGA Tour players are back in action.
How does the rest of the year shape up for The Golf Channel?
It’s going to be a great fall if you are a sports fan -- you’re going to have all the leagues back. Usually the big golf events finish before the end of the summer to make way for football, but in these unprecedented times we’re going to have a fall that is chock full of PGA championships. Golf fans are really loyal and really excited about the prospect of fall golf. They want to see what the [2020 Masters Tournament] looks like in November. We’re going to have the [FedEx Cup] championship finish on Labor Day. As sports fans we’ve been so starved for so many months, so I think there’s room for golf championships taking place later than normal in the calendar year.