Last Thursday director Jim Jennett ducked into ABC's Phase 8 Mobile Unit in the ABC Sports compound behind the 13th tee at Oakmont Country Club. All 65 monitors in front of him were gray except one, which showed a leader board that featured Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin. In another trailer production assistants were preparing a highlights package. It was business as usual after the first day of ABC's final U.S. Open. Or so it seemed.
"I haven't seen any difference from any other U.S. Open," Jennett said. "We're going to miss the Open, but we've kept ourselves so busy we haven't had time to sit around and think about it."
Two weeks ago Jennett and his colleagues at ABC were reminded of the cold, simple truth about television: There is no loyalty when there are dollars on the table. ABC, which has broadcast a package of USGA events including the Open for the last 29 years, got left out in the cold when the USGA put the next five years of that package up for auction. Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports, bid $40 million, $13 million of it for the first year, which was about $2 million more than ABC offered.
Many ABC executives and top-level production people feel betrayed and sold out by the USGA. But the 6'6" Jennett, who has worked as a director for 25 years and has experienced the disappointment of losing broadcast rights to the Winter and the Summer Olympics, takes a more philosophical stance. "This is the business we're in," he says. "Events come and go. We don't have the Open next year, but that doesn't mean we'll never have the U.S. Open again. These things go in cycles. Nothing is forever."
Indeed, the USGA structured the NBC contract with an escape clause that gives the USGA an out after three years rather than the usual five. Because ABC could buy back the Open after '97. the on-record comments about losing the event have been tempered at ABC. It's important to remain dignified in defeat, and ABC executive producer Terry Jastrow stressed that to his personnel in a meeting last week.
Under the tutelage of Roone Arledge and Chuck Howard, Jastrow and Jennett revolutionized television golf coverage. At Oak Hill in 1968, ABC commentator Bud Palmer suggested at a production meeting that he come down out of the tower behind the 13th green during the final round and follow the last group in. Jastrow, then a junior on the University of Houston golf team, was Palmer's spotter and scorer. They walked the final five holes with Bert Yancey and the eventual winner, Lee Trevino.
Over time the role of on-course commentator evolved, and ABC's Bob Rosburg became the dean of the foot soldiers. While some people may tire of Rossi's "He's got no shot" mantra, the 1959 PGA champion provides all the important information in any on-course situation succinctly and effectively. In 1984 the USGA suggested that LPGA great Judy Rankin report from the course at the women's Open, and the next year Rankin became the first woman on-course reporter at the men's Open, at Oakland Hills. She's the best in the business at what she does.
But it's not the words that set ABC's coverage apart. It's the pictures and the sounds. You can always tell an ABC golf telecast by the aerial shots from its 120-foot-high cherry pickers, the close-ups and the camera angles. At the U.S. Open at Medinah in 1975, handheld cameras were used in the fairways for the first time, at long last allowing a glimpse of the player's point of view.
What bruised egos at ABC about the USGA's move to NBC were the whispers that this was something other than a financial decision—the hints that last year's Open broadcast from Baltusrol was flat and that Jack Nicklaus's role as an analyst had grown too large. But the truth is that times have changed at the USGA, which in previous negotiations had not emphasized money. ABC Sports president Dennis Swanson should have known that if he wanted to keep the Open package, he needed to up the ante.