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Next on Golf Channel: More Golf

April 09, 1998|LARRY STEWART

Need more on the Masters than CBS and USA can provide? There is always the Golf Channel.

"Golf Central," the only half-hour nightly news program on television devoted strictly to golf, will offer extensive highlights every day at 4:30 p.m.

There is also "Viewer's Forum," with Peter Kessler and golf analyst Mark Lye, nightly at 5 and 9. There will be a special two-hour edition Sunday night.

Another of the Golf Channel's marquee programs is the instructional "Golf Academy Live," which allows viewers to call in to get tips on their game. It is on live every Tuesday and Wednesday at 5 p.m., and there are a number of repeats.

Golf, 24 hours a day. That's the Golf Channel, which now reaches about 700,000 households in the Los Angeles area and 14 million nationwide.

The Golf Channel's weeklong tribute to past Masters champions runs nightly through Saturday. Nick Faldo, the three-time winner, is featured on tonight's show at 6, with a repeat at 10 p.m.

A 30-minute special on defending champion Tigers Woods, which was first shown Monday and will be shown again today at 3:30 and Saturday at noon, is as good as anything you'll see on a major network. There is also an excellent Fuzzy Zoeller profile that premiered Tuesday and will be repeated at 9 a.m. Saturday.

If there is one thing that stands out about the Golf Channel, it's the quality of its programming. Oh, sure, there might be an overabundance of golf infomercials, but the programs produced by the Golf Channel are all top quality.

Joe E. Gibbs, a cable television entrepreneur from Birmingham, Ala., came up with the idea of the Golf Channel while reading a magazine article on a flight in early 1991.

The article was about how new cable technology meant a boom market for niche cable channels.

Gibbs, who had taken up golf less than a year earlier, thought about a golf channel.

A channel with nothing but golf? Preposterous.

That was the reaction in 1979 when a father and son, Bill and Scott Rasmussen, came up with the idea of a 24-hour all-sports channel they would end up calling ESPN.

The first thing Gibbs did was commission a Gallup Poll, which came back with favorable results.

Next, Gibbs knew he needed two things to make his idea work--credibility and investors.

For credibility, he sought out Arnold Palmer, whom he had gotten to know during the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek in Birmingham in August 1990. Palmer had stayed at Gibbs' guest house.

Palmer liked the idea, and in November 1991 he and Gibbs became co-founders and co-chairmen of the Golf Channel.

"I don't think I would have gone ahead without Arnold," Gibbs said. "Maybe, but I don't think so."

Gibbs then raised about $100 million from a number of investors, including six major cable distributors, Times Mirror among them.

"It turned out we really needed about $120 million to launch," said Gibbs, who had to personally come up with the additional $20 million.

The money was in place by May 1994 and on Oct. 31 of that year a launch date of Jan. 17, 1995, was set.

The Golf Channel launched on schedule as a pay service that cost subscribers $6.95 a month.

"Initially, it may have been a mistake to launch as a pay service," said Chris Murvin, the Golf Channel's general counsel. "But it was one of those mistakes that turned out to be a positive.

"Because we launched as a pay service, production had to be high quality," Murvin said. "It forced us to come out of the blocks with a slick look."

To give the Golf Channel the look worthy of a pay service, Gibbs turned to Bob Greenway, his new senior vice president of programming and production. Greenway, a former top executive at HBO, brought in production whiz Mike Whelan, who had learned under Ross Greenburg, HBO's award-winning executive producer of sports.

"I took the job with the understanding there would be no scrimping on production," Whelan said. "We were going to do it first class, or not at all."

Getting started wasn't easy. For most of the first year the Golf Channel was on the air, no one was watching. Six months after the launch, there were only 130,000 subscribers--and the financial losses were about $40 million.

Something needed to be done, and it was.

In September 1995, the channel switched from a stand-alone pay service to one that was either a basic service like ESPN and USA or one that was included in a pay package, meaning subscribers got it with a group of other pay channels.

By December of that year, the Golf Channel had 1.4 million subscribers and was on its way.

Distribution is still an issue, but Bill O'Donnell, vice president of affiliate sales, says inroads continue to be made.

"We have a number of things going for us, and number one is that the cable operators, once they put us on, are invariably satisfied. I just got a note from an operator at a new affiliate in Columbus [Ohio] saying he was continually being stopped and thanked for putting on the Golf Channel. We get that kind of response all the time.

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