Originally created 02/08/00

Sports left behind in TV news



By now you know that Tiger Woods won his sixth consecutive golf tournament Monday, hurdling a seven-stroke deficit to win the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

And if you expected to watch Tiger's prowl, by now you know that WRDW-Channel 12, the local CBS-TV affiliate, decided not to telecast the event live, instead bringing the full theater of Tiger's victory to Augusta seven-and-a-half hours later.

The decision not to run the Pebble Beach's final round rested in the hands of WRDW general manager John Ray, who set a precedent and made a statement he may want to recant in the future.

Ray, in essence, told Augusta that news created in the sports realm, no matter how possibly historically captivating or enthusiastically supported, is not of the same "value" of other news items and would not be enough to bump high-priced syndicated programming during a sweeps period.

Ray said the only way the station could not show The Oprah Winfrey Show would be if it were replaced by "a major news story or that type of event where we had continuing coverage. But certainly not for a golf tournament."

Certainly not for a golf tournament? Six words that Ray may wish he never said.

In 1992, in WRDW's pre-Ray days, the station preempted the first hour of the Daytona 500 to televise a local Sunday church service. The station immediately showed regret, vowing never to do so again.

So here's Ray on Monday, showing all of us where sports news stands on the priority totem pole. What happens if the Masters or PGA Championship, two golf tournaments also broadcast by CBS, get a round washed out, forcing a Monday conclusion?

Would Ray and WRDW preempt Oprah and Inside Edition then?

Would the Masters be considered "a major news story," while Tiger's pursuit of golfing immortality was not? What if Mark McGwire attempts to hit his 71st home run while Oprah's getting chummy with Matt Damon?

The main question here is the value of sports as news. It's tougher to distinguish from the daily monotony. If Monday were the final round of Quad Cities, with J.L. Lewis stalking Olin Browne, would there have been similar uproar, or the "thousands of phone calls to complain," as one WRDW employee described?

But Monday proved distinctive, in hindsight of course.

You had golf's, maybe all sports', most identifiable 21st century personality looking to add to his young legend. Granted, he started the day five shots behind, so forecasting a Tiger storm may have been troubling even for umbrella-twirling meteorologist Bob Smith.

But there Tiger stood, charging ahead while Augusta was left in the dark. No cut-ins. No updates. No mention in the 5:20 p.m. sports segment. (Though if sports director Paul Davis had beamed about Tiger's charge, I'd wonder even more about where the golf coverage was.)

WRDW's biggest fault Monday was its inflexibility, its inability to report on this major news event in the timely fashion its medium provides. They failed even with the parent network holding the exclusive rights.

Augusta didn't sit alone in the Pebble Beach black-out cubicle, so don't throw all this on Ray. CBS reported that 34 percent of its affiliates chose to tape-delay Monday's telecast.

In Tiger's hometown of Orlando, Fla., home to roughly a quarter of the PGA Tour pros, viewers expecting golf instead found The Rosie O'Donnell Show on the air. In Cleveland, where Tiger's agents at the International Management Group work, episodes of Judge Judy filled the screen.

Hindsight showed that WRDW dropped the ball on not showing live what turned into a huge national story. Hopefully if the situation evolves again, Ray will have learned from the mistake.

But what this episode really shows is how sports news is considered merely trivial. And that's the perception that needs to change most.

Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.