There’s no question that three years in, the product has improved.
Yet the question remains: Is it good enough?
When the U.S. Golf Association elected to accept heaping wheelbarrows of cash from Fox in exchange for its TV broadcast rights, it didn’t matter much to the USGA’s primary constituency – you know, the golfers and fans in the United States.
But for four days in June, it absolutely matters, and plenty.
While the technology used by Fox to accentuate the broadcast of the 117th U.S. Open last week at Erin Hills left longtime major-championship broadcasters NBC and CBS in the dust, the rest of the product had far too many viewers reaching for the mute button for a third summer.
If not clicking to other channels altogether.
Although there are always variables relating to time zones and broadcast windows, the overnight ratings from the third round at Erin Hills matched the 2016 mark for lowest Saturday round on record, and represented a 24-percent drop from the third round two years ago at Chambers Bay, when Fox made its debut.
Mind you, this ratings dive transpired while players were shooting record scores Saturday, and obliterating all sorts of records in an event with a century-plus of history. Even Justin Thomas, who shot a record 9-under 63 in the third round, said he was missing the dulcet tones of NBC’s Johnny Miller, who shot 63 at the U.S. Open himself.
"I wish he was calling it,” Thomas said, “just to see what he said.” That sentiment would generate a hearty “hallelujah” among many viewers.
It’s a fish-in-a-barrel exercise to cruelly shred those who must make flash decisions and flip remarks during a live broadcast with far more than a single football or baseball to track, plus miles of acreage as the playing field. But Fox seems at times to be as overwhelmed by the immensity of the task as some players were by the size of sprawling Erin Hills.
A few observations:
For starters, while the Open daily broadcast window lasts from dawn to dusk, there are simply too many voices booming through our surround-sound speakers at times. There’s probably a reason why CBS, NBC and Golf Channel use two-man booths. The Fox threesomes walked over one another far too often. There was no better example than shortly before Rickie Fowler teed off in the final round, when the three guys in the booth were yakking simultaneously while a microphone on the range was picking up a conversation between instructor Butch Harmon and Fowler. All of it was unintelligible.
As for the talent, Brad Faxon seemed intent on mentioning every one of his personal endorsements on a daily basis, which did not pass unnoticed by some of his peers. Darren Clarke, with his Irish lilt, was so difficult to understand at times, one of his Northern Irish countrymen in the media suggested that Fox needed to add an interpreter or closed captioning.
Joe Buck, Fox’s go-to anchorman across the network’s sports spectrum, is an avid golfer who has improved in his three trips to the National Open, though he still draws most of the viewer vitriol. In his defense, it’s hard to parachute into one event each year and sound as plugged in as Jim Nantz or Dan Hicks, his counterparts at CBS and NBC, respectively. In fact, it’s impossible to fix. So, in that regard, Fox always will suffer by comparison.
Not surprisingly, Paul Azinger and Curtis Strange, with years of experience at ABC/ESPN, were the linchpins of the coverage, and CNN veteran Shane O’Donoghue handled his task of filling in for Buck with ease and aplomb. Golf architect Gil Hanse’s inclusion was a terrific addition in terms of diagnosing the nuances of Erin Hills’ unusual design.
In terms of technology, Fox benefits because of its truncated golf schedule and the various shot-tracer technologies that are the highlight of its broadcasts. The devices are prohibitively expensive, which is why we rarely see them on CBS and NBC. Sunday, when the wind was howling, an on-screen gauge showing speed and direction wasn’t used until late in the day.
But that’s about the only benefit of Fox’s truncated schedule and limited exposure to the world’s top players. It was telling that Fox added daily cameo appearances from longtime Sports Illustrated scribes Michael Bamberger and Alan Shipnuck, who supplied more fresh, player-specific anecdotes than the rest of the two-dozen strong on-air crew combined.
The network’s decision to use the wretched “Undisputed” sports-talk show as the lead-in programming before live coverage ensued over the first two rounds was a major gaffe supported by abysmal ratings (it averaged around 140,000 viewers). An hourlong show in which Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe are asked to discuss golf is 59:59 too long.
From a credibility standpoint, nothing was more jarring than the intermittent appearances by Holly Sonders, whose choice of clingy attire was, at best, inappropriate and at worst, salacious. She contributed little to the broadcast beyond serving as hostess eye candy. If that sounds harsh, consider that longtime media critic Martin Kaufmann of Golfweek this weekend wrote that the Sonders experiment had “failed,” adding, “Bottom line: she stinks on TV.”
Sure, the event was held in America’s dairy heartland, but there’s such a thing as too much cheesecake.
To answer a common email query this week, the rights deal between the USGA and Fox has nine more years remaining, so there’s plenty of time to improve. They’ll probably need it.