They call him the Ayatollah of CBS, and he accepts the label
gratefully and withgusto. ``Everyone knows,'' Frank Chirkinian
declares in a big bass voice, ``that democracy is the least
effectual form of government inside a TV control truck.There
must be absolutely autocratic rule so there is no confusion as
to who is in charge.In short, there must be an ayatollah.And
I am he.''
This June, Chirkinian will be 69, an age when life begins to
slow the reflexes and muddle the synapses of most ordinary men
-- as well as some ayatollahs.But ask him if he has slowed
down, and he shouts irritably, ``I haven't lost a step, not a
step!My reaction time is the same it always was.''CBS
apparently agrees with him: Last November the network signed the
agile Armenian to a new five-year contract to direct about 20
golf tournaments a year. Actually, the contract calls for
Chirkinian to play the all-but-impossible double role of
director and producer -- a complex electronic high-wire act that
puts Chirkinian in a class all by himself.``To do both is
unique,'' says Rick Gentile, the executive producer of CBS
Sports. ``Normally, a director handles the moving story line and
the live camera shots, while a producer handles replays and the
flow and pacing of commercials. Those are two tough jobs
performed by two talented people.Frank does both alone.We'll
never see his like again.''
When CBS broadcasts the Masters this week, Chirkinian will be
making his 37th straight appearance in the ayatollah's chair at
Augusta. That will give him history's longest unbroken streak at
the helm of one of TV sports' crown jewel events -- beating out
even the legendary Harry Coyle of NBC, who racked up 30
consecutive years (1947-76) directing World Series telecasts
before his network lost part of the major league baseball
Over the years with CBS Sports, Chirkinian has directed
everything from Indy 500s to Triple Crown horse races to U.S.
Open tennis to the Winter Olympic Games. But it is golf
generally and the Masters specifically that have lifted him to
something like immortality in the fickle, flickering world of TV
sports. Veteran golf writer Dan Jenkins says, ``It's no contest.
Frank is the best there's ever been at producing golf on
television.'' Even his competitors stand up and salute. John
Wildhack, senior vice president of programming for ESPN, says,
``He's the guy who invented golf on television.His style is
distinct, and no one has come close to matching what he does.''
``The other networks,'' says Chirkinian, ``do it all the same --
intensive focus on the leaders with commentators summing up the
action from the 18th green, lots of canned interviews and
features.By contrast, I have guys at all the holes so we get
voice changes and a sense of being in the midst of the action.
I show lots and lots of golfers and lots and lots of golf shots.
I don't concentrate only on the leaders. I don't do any canned
features at Augusta.Why should I, with all that live action to
show?Bob Jones once told me, `Frank, the more golf you show,
the better your product is.'That's what I give my audience:
golf.And I try never to subordinate the event to my ego.When
I die, I want my epitaph to read, `He stayed out of the way.' ''
And how does Chirkinian stay out of the way? ``It is a matter of
experience and intuition,'' Chirkinian says. ``Knowing the game
is paramount. I know each player's eccentricities -- which one
waggles the club once, which one waggles it four times, which
one throws grass before he hits.I know where I should be at
each moment on each day.The Saturday show is different from
Sunday's.It is a matter of whipping up synthetic drama: Will
the ball go in the hole? Will it go in the water?Then on
Sunday you get to the reportage, the battle, the saga of golfer
A versus golfer B.And it is all played out on this beautiful
stage at Augusta.''
A 1992 Golf Digest poll of 15,000 readers revealed that a
massive 56% preferred CBS's Chirkinian-driven golf coverage to
that of all other networks. ESPN finished with 18%, NBC 12% and
ABC 7%. That same year Chirkinian accepted a prestigious Peabody
Award (given by the University of Georgia College of Journalism
and Mass Communication for outstanding achievement in
broadcasting) for CBS's coverage of the 1991 Masters.It was
only the sixth time in the 54-year history of the coveted prize
that it went to a sports program -- CBS (and Chirkinian) had won
the last time, too, for coverage of the 1960 Winter Olympics in
Squaw Valley, Calif. This year the network has been nominated
for an Emmy in the outstanding-live-sports-special category for
its 1994 Masters coverage. A win on April 25 would give
Chirkinian his first golf Emmy.
Chirkinian's TV career began in 1950, when he dropped out of the
University of Pennsylvania to go to work for $30 a week as an
assistant director at the CBS-owned Philadelphia station, WCAU.
``I was not a sports jock in those days,'' says Chirkinian. ``I
was a studio director.'' He won two Emmys for directing
musicals and worked at everything from newscasts to cooking
shows. Then CBS asked him to direct its broadcast of the 1958
PGA Championship at Llanerch Country Club in nearby Havertown,
Pa.His work was so impressive that immediately after the
tournament CBS hired him full time as one of a growing crowd of
exceptional WCAU sports talents -- including director Tony
Verna, producer Jack Dolph and commentator Jack Whitaker -- who
went to the network.
At CBS, Chirkinian quickly blossomed into one of the great
innovators in TV sports. ``I did some wild things around 1960,''
he recalls with enthusiasm. ``I put the first camera in a blimp
over the Orange Bowl.I put a camera in the infield to follow
the runners around during an L.A. Times indoor track meet. For
the third leg of the 1963 Triple Crown, I put a camera on a 100-
foot tower in the infield at Aqueduct [Belmont was under repair]
to follow the horses all the way around the track.At the
national swimming and diving championships I put one camera
underwater to pick up the divers, and I had another that rolled
alongside the pool to follow the swimmers.At the Olympics at
Squaw Valley I wanted a camera at the top of the80-meter ski
jump.But in those days cable could receive power over a
limited distance, and the engineers said there was no way it
could be stretched up the jump.I said, `I know you will find a
way to get Chirkinian what he wants.'They did. They invented
the famous black box to attach to each end of each cable length
to increase the voltage and stretch it much farther.It became
standard equipment, and it extended our camera reach on golf
Chirkinian's innovations in golf are his trademark and his
legacy.He placed mikes on tees to hear players' conversations
and the sound of the club hitting the ball. And he added a whole
new perspective to tournament coverage by putting cameras on
giant building cranes.
His Masters string began during the stone age of TV, when the
pictures were black and white, the cameras were immovable black
hulks linked by cables as thick as baseball bats, and the
reigning headmasters at Augusta National were a couple of
legends named Bobby Jones, the genteel Georgian amateur who
founded the club in 1931, and CliffordRoberts, the autocratic
bully who ran it from 1931 to 1977.
``Jones was the soul of the Masters and Roberts was the body,''
says Chirkinian.``Bob didn't have much to do with the nuts and
bolts of the operation; he was a spiritual leader. But it was
Bob who gave me the one immutable edict in regard to our
telecasts.Maybe it was more a philosophy than an edict. He
said, `Never mention money during a Masters telecast.The money
a golfer wins doesn't matter, it doesn't last. Once it is gone,
you still have the jacket, you still have the trophy, you still
have the championship to remind you of what a great thing you
have accomplished.Money is not the point of golf,' he told me.
`Please don't talk about it.' ''
Roberts used more muscle and less finesse, often resorting to
finger-jabbing the chests of CBS Sports executives as he laid
down the law: no more than two advertisers; a limit of four
commercials per hour; no network promotional ads; no local
station breaks; no mention of any other golf tournaments except
the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. What
Chirkinian calls Roberts's ``dictum to end all dictums''
occurred after the jacket-awarding ceremonies at the end of the
1965 Masters telecast, when Roberts declared flatly to the whole
world, ``Next year, you'll be seeing the Masters in color.''
The giant sucking sound heard from New York that day was the
executive echelon of CBS Sports taking gas.As Chirkinian
recalls, ``The network had no plan to use color at the Masters
in 1966. It wasn't in the budget.''But, as always, CBS found a
way to give Roberts exactly what he wanted, and, lo, the 1966
Masters appeared in color.
In Roberts's defense, Chirkinian now unequivocally rates the
advent of color at Augusta as his greatest experience in
television.``The first time we saw the course in color on our
truck monitors, it was like walking into the light after a
lifetime of darkness. It is still burned into my brain.''
Indeed, a lot of dictums handed down by Roberts and the absolute
rulers who have followed him -- Houston food-distribution
executiveBill Lane from 1977 to '79, Hord Hardin, a retired
St. Louis banker who served as chairman from 1979 to '91, and
Jack Stephens, a Little Rock investor who has been on the throne
since -- resulted in some first-class TV.As Chirkinian points
out, ``Their demands made the Masters the most pristine telecast
in television. We weren't force-fed everything. We agreed
collectively most of the time.''
When they don't agree collectively, CBS tends to collapse in
abject -- andoften embarrassing -- surrender.During a rare
Monday playoff, in 1966, among Gay Brewer, Tommy Jacobs and Jack
Nicklaus, Whitaker, one of CBS's most articulate and intelligent
commentators, called a surging crowd of spectators ``a mob.''
He was absolutely right, for many of the overwrought spectators
were locals allowed in for the playoff without tickets, and they
bore no resemblance to the reverent golf cultists who attend
most Masters rounds.But Roberts didn't like the terminology,
and he ordered CBS to dismiss Whitaker from further appearances
at the Masters.
``If the network had had stronger management,'' Chirkinian says
now, ``we might have circumvented that. The only thing Jack was
guilty of was talking about something that was so visually
obvious it didn't need words.''Nevertheless, it was four years
before Whitaker worked the Masters again.
This year, of course, Gary McCord, the part-time PGA Tour pro
who has been the resident wiseass in CBS's golf coverage for
eight years, has been ordered off the course. McCord ruffled
Stephens's feathers last year by saying that the contours of the
17th green looked ``suspiciously like body bags,'' and with his
now infamous reference to bikini wax in describing the course's
closely trimmed greens.
Chirkinian knew instantly in the truck that McCord's body bag
remark was a bad gaffe.``The worst thing was that he had
prewritten that line. It was not just a thoughtless ad lib. He'd
been warned before, and we had a very one-sided conversation
over the intercom.I told him that if I'd known he was going to
use that line about body bags, I'd have made sure that he was in
one.'' When it was time to negotiate this year's 40th
consecutive one-year contract between the Masters and CBS, word
fromStephens's office in Little Rock was cold and irrevocable.
``They said either we show up prepared to guarantee that McCord
is off the show or we shouldn't show up at all,'' Chirkinian
recalls.CBS guaranteed that McCord was out, and the contract
was renewed -- for one more year.
``I told Gary that the club had done him a big favor by giving
him far more publicity than he deserved considering who he was
and how little he'd accomplished as a golfer.I told him to
take the high road and not complain about it.''
In the weeks before this year's Masters, McCord was not only not
complaining, he was preening about his good luck.``Hey, if you
take the long look at this, Frank is right.I'm getting
unbelievable publicity.It's like the greatest publicity stunt
of all, except it's not a stunt.''
Augustan autocracy had prevailed once again -- as it certainly
will forever. As Chirkinian says with typical candor, ``What
they ask, we do because we're afraid we'll lose the tournament
if we turn them down. It's that simple. We were in a lose-lose
situation. CBS had lost the NFL, morale was low, and we weren't
about to lose one of the crown jewels of sport on the grounds of
an announcer being banned.''
So Chirkinian will be in the ayatollah's chair at Augusta again
this year, running 28 cameras with a crew of 75 technicians and
nine commentators.He will, as always, excoriate his minions
with figurative finger-jabs through the intercom.As Chirkinian
himself is quick to admit, ``Cliff Roberts taught me everything
I know about being an autocrat and an ayatollah.''Chuck Will,
associate producer of the Masters telecast since 1979 and target
of much Chirkinian anger, agrees. ``Frank runs a perfectly
despotic operation,'' Will says.``He speaks Expletive over our
intercom.He is very sarcastic, very cutting, very lacking in
patience.But his temper is like a puff of smoke. It blows,
it's gone, and Frank becomes a pussycat and a deeply caring
He is also a deeply caring golfer who still marvels at the
memory of a life- changing experience he underwent while playing
with Whitaker at Llanerch nearly four decades ago.``Jack hit
out of the woods onto the green, putted out and said he had a
6,'' Chirkinian recalls.``I counted back and said, no, he had
a 5.Jack said, no, the ball had moved in the woods and that
cost him a penalty stroke.I hadn't seen it; he didn't have to
count it. That opened my eyes to the essence of the game.Golf
is a matter of ethical communication with yourself.A true
golfer is never going to cheat because he is only cheating
himself.This is the antithesis of every other sport.If an
umpire mistakenly calls a guy safe at second, does the player
jump up and say, `No, I was out, ump. I call myself out'?
Never! No other sport -- not football, basketball, hockey --
expects a player to be that honest.That's what sets the game
of golf apart from all others.''
Chirkinian lived in Augusta for 18 years, the length of his
marriage to Mary Jane, a resident of that town. He moved to
Jupiter Island, Fla., after they separated last fall. A
six-handicap golfer, he has played Augusta National as a guest
dozens of times, but he has never been asked to be a member of
the club.Some people think this is an insult, but when
Chirkinian is asked if he resents not being invited, he says,
``Certainly not.They couldn't ask me as long as I'm doing the
tournament for CBS.It's a direct conflict of interest.''He
pauses, then chuckles, ``Or maybe they just had their Armenian
More likely it was the ayatollah quota that had been filled: One
of those at a time is more than enough for any self-respecting