Golf Channel will join the ranks of live morning programmers when it bows a new two-hour weekday show on Monday.
The tee shot for Morning Drive, featuring veteran sports broadcasters Erik Kuselias (ESPN) and Gary Williams (Sirius Satellite Radio) as co-hosts, starts Jan. 3 at 7 a.m. and comes two weeks before the network dips its toe into 3D waters with enhanced format coverage from select holes at the Sony Open in Hawaii on Jan. 15-16.
The Comcast-owned network's entry is part of an expanded programming lineup, featuring new and returning instructional shows, and original documentary series aimed at boosting its ratings fortunes to and beyond the numbers it recorded during its top year of 2009.
"By debuting a great morning show and more instructional fare, new seasons of Big Break and The Haney Project and the documentary series Pipe Dream, we want to show we're much more than just seven irons and drivers," said Tom Stathakes, Golf senior vice president of programming, production and operations in an interview. "By stretching our legs, we will have by far the best ratings year in our history in 2011."
Its enhanced original programming efforts aside, Golf's ratings fortunes also hinge on a certain golfer.
"We think Tiger's [Woods] is going to play a full schedule this year. He's so competitive, and still wants to beat Jack [Nicklaus'] record [18 Grand Slams, versus 14 for Woods]," said Stathakes. "And there are lots of young guys to challenge him in Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Graehme McDowell. People are going to tune it to see Tiger win, or, see why he's still not winning."
During 2010, Golf averaged 119,000 and 71,000 viewers in primetime and total day, respectively, decreases of 10% and 18% from its 2009 averages.
Still, the service holed a number of Nielsen marks, including the most-watched Masters week in its history, with 164,000 average viewers, while reaching 14 million viewers overall. Woods's news conference at The Masters drew 339,000 viewers, ranking first that day among sports networks. Golf's Live From franchise set rating highs at The Masters (846,000), The Players (506,000), U.S. Open (743,000) and PGA (435,000).
Elsewhere, the premiere of Being John Daly ranked among the network's top five starters with 275,000 average watchers, while Big Break Dominican Republic -- lifted by 387,000 for its finale, the most for the franchise in five years -- averaged 281,000 viewers, its top original series' performance of 2010.
As to Morning Drive, Stathakes said it was a show that was long overdue for Golf.
"It's not a 24-hour cycle, but a 24-minute news cycle. We were at a disadvantage not being live," he said. "We'll start from the world of golf, but look at other sports and entertainment."
For instance, the show, which will include Golf Central updates, will include commentary from the likes of Jerry Rice or Tony Romo, players who brandish a mean golf stick, weighing in on pro football.
"If the BCS is the story of the day, that's where we'll be," said Stathakes. "If Morning Drive had premiered in December, Mark Wahlberg would have been on promoting his movie The Fighter before its premiere."
As to the radio-style booth set itself, it was designed and constructed in a warehouse type building by Mystic Scenic Studios. The Norwood, Mass.-headquartered company has created a fun environment within its 21-foot by 21-foot location, integrating a number of golf-themed props, incuding a pinball machine and a Golden Tee game. There is also a golf cart from Club Car hung on the wall with a monitor in the seat, a 'ball wall' containing 330 vintage and logoed golf balls, plus a variety of books and Golf Channel memorabilia.
Shot by six robotic cameras and one steadycam, Morning Drive will come out of the clubhouse on its first week with a major guest and network investor, Arnold Palmer, on Jan. 3. The King will be followed by Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino and PGA pro Chris DiMarco on Tuesday. Later in the week, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, pros Rickie Fowler and Mark O'Meara, Donald Trump and Minnesota Vikings place kicker Ryan Longwell are among the scheduled guests.
Golf Channel's team of analysts and reporters also will contribute on a daily basis, both in-studio and on-location at various tournaments. During the first week Rich Lerner and Steve Sands will report from Hawaii at the site of the tee-off for the 2011 PGA Tour season, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Brandel Chamblee will join the show on Wednesday to preview the 2011 PGA season, and Tim Rosaforte and John Feinstein will be frequent contributors to the program on a weekly basis.
Stathakes said the 13 million who follow pundit Rush Limbaugh's show, made him an easy selection for the third season of The Haney Project, which previously featured former NBAer Charles Barkley and actor/comic Ray Romano. It debuts Jan. 11 at 9 p.m.
"The show's not supposed to be too political, but you know him," he said, noting Limbaugh claims to be an 18-handicap player, but "he's probably a 28, so Haney has plenty to work on."
Stathakes also noted that when Haney comes back for a fourth campaign it will have a different format, whether with "multiple guests or a more competitive nature."
He said the 16-half-hour episodes comprising the second season of Donald J. Trump's Fabulous of Golf will be more about The Donald and his doings, than what was featured during the six-hour rookie season. "It was our fault that we focused more on Jerry Rice playing Lawrence Taylor," he explained. "This is about Donald Trump and his life. You'll see him at the Miss Universe Pageant and the in Scotland talking to towns folk about trying to build courses."
Relative to 10-part reality series Pipe Dream, Stathakes said the show, starting Jan. 11 at 9:30 p.m., follows the life of Mark Burk, a former pro golfer, so down on his luck that he was living in an abandoned construction pipe in Palm Springs, Calif. The show chronicles "the process" about how Burk is trying to turn his life around by getting a job, dealing with a pending legal battle against his ex-girlfriend and his attempt to make it through the Champions Tour qualifying school.
The original programming and Woods's return notwithstanding, the network's Nielsen fortunes could veer off course if it can't reach a new carriage agreement with DirecTV. The parties, whose contract expired on Dec. 31, are continuing to negotiate, about monthly license fee valuations of some 25 cents and positioning.