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Original Issue

The nod goes to the skunks

But CBS's Frank Chirkinian (left) thinks Chuck Howard's ABC shows stink

Like the TV announcer in the movie mm Network, Frank Chirkinian is mad as you know what and isn't going to take it anymore. Last week the veteran producer of CBS's golf coverage described his competitors at ABC as "skunks" and "frauds" who "show absolutely no class at all." Besides, Chirkinian said, they're guilty of the greatest sin known to man, caddie and country club: They don't know how to televise golf. Now that the so-called skunks have just aired the PGA, the last of this year's major championships, it might be time to put Chirkinian's charges to the test. Just which network is the class of golf coverage?

Perhaps what most irritates Chirkinian is that ABC Sports—and especially Producer Chuck Howard, who's in charge of its golf coverage—has patted itself on the back for years for initiating 18-hole coverage of the U.S. Open. In fact, Chirkinian argues, "We forced them into it." His story goes this way: In 1975, ABC had to match a CBS bid to retain rights to the Open. One specific of CBS's proposal was that it would cover every hole. According to Chirkinian, ABC had to do all 18 holes whether it wanted to or not. "That's absurd, absolutely untrue," says Howard. Whatever the case, the Open is the only event that gets 18-hole coverage. ABC, 1-up.

Another thing that nettles Chirkinian is the way Howard bad-mouths the CBS announcers. Howard stations two or three commentators behind the 18th green and lets them wing it off the monitors. We may hear, say, Jim McKay for 12 minutes, Peter Alliss for another 12 and then Jack Whitaker for 12. CBS's method is to have a different announcer on almost every hole it covers.

"ABC claims you can't find eight or 10 broadcasters who can do a good job," says Chirkinian. "That's nonsense." But the feeling here is that all the "Back to you, Vin," "Over to you, Pat," and "Take it away, Ken" that flows from CBS telecasts is distracting. ABC, 2-up.

Chirkinian also maintains ABC is too concerned with old-fashioned show biz. "ABC is star oriented," he says. "They would rather watch Nicklaus walk than another player strike a golf shot." CBS, on the other hand, likes to show as many shots of as many players as possible. To be sure, Howard does cut corners to follow the big names. While Nicklaus was running off five straight birdies on the final day of the U.S. Open, viewers didn't see much of the leader, Bill Rogers. But there's nothing wrong with show biz so long as the basic story isn't compromised. Watching Tom Watson ruminate over a 15-foot putt when he's in contention is far more compelling than watching Larry Nelson, Tom Kite and Fuzzy Zoeller hit three meaningless shots on three different holes within 33 seconds. ABC's more personalized approach is exactly what golf requires. ABC interviews young men in Amana hats, while Chirkinian opts for still more golf shots. As Howard says, "The more interviews you do, the more you see the players aren't all tall blond guys out of Houston." ABC, 3-up.

As for announcers, the time has come to put the networks' British Commandment into writing: "Thou shalt always use a Henry Longhurst sound-alike on the air." The class of the field is CBS's Ben Wright (a Brit), with ABC's Alliss (another) a close second. Both beat Bruce Devlin (an Aussie) of NBC. Oh, yes. We've ignored NBC, but for good reason. Proficient in covering all other sports, NBC has hardly a clue as to how to handle golf, other than having Don Criqui say, "Atop the leader board!" every second minute. And if the tour had as many great golfers as Devlin says it has, everyone would shoot in the low 60s.

So, for years it's been match play: CBS, which broadcasts 15 tournaments, including the Masters, vs. ABC, which televises the U.S., British and women's opens, the PGA and the U.S. Amateur. NBC carries 13 events. "For some inexplicable reason, I'm Mr. Bad Guy [and] we're the chicken bone in ABC's throat," says Chirkinian. "I accept that as a compliment. We've got four Emmys in golf; ABC's got none. I wish they would let their work speak for them and stop all this palaver on the side."

The truth is, work does speak. This year the skunks win going away.