News & Opinion

Golf Channel vows sharp focus amid strike

If ever there were a time in which stand-ins, volunteers and outsiders should be used for crucial technical support during live tournament fare produced by Golf Channel, this might be the week.

The European Tour event in Abu Dhabi features a far more newsworthy field than its PGA Tour counterpart in the California desert, and the production crew in the Middle East isn’t on strike.

Over the years, professional golf has been heralded because, unlike team sports, there are no contract holdouts, union strikes or labor disputes involving players, excepting the occasional firing of a coach or caddie.

However, on the other side of the camera lens, that is hardly the case, as viewers learned Sunday while watching Golf Channel’s broadcasts of the PGA Tour, Champions and Web.com circuits. During the rounds, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees – the union that represents a small army of Golf Channel production personnel, including camera operators – abruptly walked off the job, forcing the network to ad lib with volunteers and other employees.

The network televised 19 hours of live golf on Sunday, using fill-ins for much of the technical tasks, including camera work and video replay. Viewers were quick to complain on social media about scaled-down production, balls lost in flight, blurry camera work and other rudimentary elements. The Sony Open in Hawaii, the day’s live centerpiece, took most of the ire.

It left some unsettled, no strike pun intended. Cracked one viewer on Twitter: “Golf Channel right now is kinda like when CNN films Trump playing [golf] from behind some bushes.”

This week, millions of Americans will be watching an Abu Dhabi field that includes Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, with no interruption in broadcast savvy. After all, the event will be televised by European Tour Productions, which isn’t affected by the strike.

Closer to home, this week’s PGA Tour-sponsored events on the regular and Champions circuits, however, will use an amalgam of non-union staffers, others who didn’t honor the picket lines and freelancers. A network spokesman said the “expectation” is that viewers will not notice much, if any, difference from a fully staffed week. 

Golf Channel will televise all four rounds of the PGA Tour’s CareerBuilder Challenge at La Quinta, Calif. Starting next weekend at Torrey Pines, CBS takes over the weekend broadcast duties for five weeks, and its employees are not part of the striking union. 

In an email to employees on Monday, Golf Channel President Mike McCarley saluted the effort of those who pitched in Sunday and all but promised that viewers this week would notice no difference in broadcast quality. The network broadcast rounds on the Web.com Tour on Monday and Tuesday using replacement workers behind the scenes.

In essence, McCarley applauded those who crossed the picket line, which is sure to make some supporters of collective bargaining grumble.

“It’s important to appreciate that many tournament technicians represented by their union did come to work yesterday and more are working today,” McCarley said in Monday’s email, a copy of which was obtained by Morning Read. “Either way, we have solid contingency plans in place and plenty of people stepping up to carry out those plans.”

The network and union declined to identify the talking points of the contract dispute, though each side said no stalemate exists, which can be interpreted as a good sign. Then again, the two sides have been discussing the issues for nine months.

“If it was a Mexican standoff, that would be news, and that is not the case,” said Katherine Orloff, the union’s publicist.

In his email to staffers, McCarley seemingly took a veiled shot at the union’s decision to walk: “Most, especially fans of the game, can appreciate threats of work stoppages or compromising our live coverage are not the best way for resolving issues in the short or long term.”

Then again, as a contextual aside, it’s interesting to note that Golf Channel several years ago laid off a cadre of staff camera operators in a cost-cutting move and turned to use outside labor. To some degree, that move set the stage for the existing dispute. In corporate America, especially in the media sector, the modern employer-employee relationship never has been more one-sided.

So, are you tempted to pick a philosophical side? 

Among the viewing public, bailing because of gripes over working conditions or salary issues during broadcast weeks in the Bahamas and Hawaii won’t curry much sympathy for striking union employees, either.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling