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TV coverage will focus on golf not protests

Many things will remain the same at this year's Masters golf tournament, which begins Thursday.

It will be played, as it always has been, at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.

Tiger Woods will be defending the title, which he has held three previous times.

The winner will slip on a green blazer with the yellow Masters logo.

But this year's Masters — or at least the atmosphere surrounding it — will be unlike any other. Protesters will picket on Saturday against Augusta's men-only membership policy, the culmination of a nearly yearlong campaign led by Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations.

Even so, CBS Sports plans to cover the Masters, the first of the year's Grand Slam tournaments, as it always has, with one difference: The controversy will force the network to do without advertisers.

Only if a spontaneous protest affects play will CBS Sports take note of it, network executives said last week on the condition of anonymity. Otherwise, even on-course demonstrations might be ignored by CBS, much as networks refuse to show drunken fans racing across a football or baseball field.

Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who is now an industry consultant, said: "The Masters will be covered pretty much as it has. CBS' responsibility will be to cover the tournament."

Last year, when Burk first demanded that CBS not broadcast the Masters, the company said it would be unfair to viewers not to show it.

CBS Sports would not comment on the issue and would not let its announcers, including the host, Jim Nantz, discuss anything but golf. Jim McCarthy, a spokesman for Augusta National, said the club would have no comment.

It will be up to CBS News, with its resources stretched to cover the war in Iraq, to cover the protests and any other possible developments. It is unlikely that CBS News will break into the sportscast with live protest-related reports, the network executives said.

The Saturday protest is to end at 3 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, a half-hour before CBS starts that day's Masters broadcast, but in time for the networks' evening newscasts.

Sandy Genelius, a spokeswoman for CBS News, said the news division had no plan yet for how it would cover the protest. "It's too early," she said. "There's a lot going on in the world. We'll make a decision a day or two ahead of time." She added that "there are no restrictions on what we can cover."

Genelius said that because Mark Strassman, CBS News' Atlanta correspondent, was a reporter traveling with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, the network may need to use a reporter from a CBS affiliate to report on any Masters-related news.

Burk said she did not expect CBS Sports to show her group's protest, whether it ended up just outside the club's grounds or farther away.

"Augusta would pull the plug if the sportscast shows us," she said.

Burk's group will be joined in the protest by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. A one-man splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan plans a counterprotest, defending Augusta National's right to limit its membership — a show of support from which the club has tried to distance itself.

"There will be a lot of media down there," said Burk, who is to be interviewed Wednesday morning on CBS' "Early Show." "CBS isn't the only game down there."

The relationship between CBS Sports and the men who run Augusta National has never been one of equals. CBS has carried the Masters under a series of one-year contracts since 1956, a rare relationship in sports television, where multiyear deals are typical.

Augusta National for years refused CBS' entreaties to show 18-hole coverage (relenting in 2002), believing that less was more. The club has spurned requests to move the winner's ceremony from the staid, funereal Butler Cabin, where club chairmen like the incumbent, William Johnson, who is known as Hootie, have presided, to the noisy, crowd-filled practice putting green.

And when the reporter Gary McCord offended the club in 1994 with saucy and irreverent remarks on the course that would have gone unnoticed at any other tournament, CBS agreed to remove him from subsequent Masters broadcasts.

The last time a social issue merged with a golf event was in 1990. Shortly before ABC's broadcast of the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., the club's founder, Hall Thompson, said it would "not be pressured into accepting" a black member. Sponsors withdrew $2 million in advertising, but one week before the tournament, the club offered an honorary membership to a local black businessman. Augusta National followed soon after by inviting a black executive to be a member.

For the PGA broadcast, Terry Jastrow, the producer for ABC Sports, recalled: "I wanted to do justice to the story. We couldn't stick our heads in the sand. The story was there." He asked ABC News to produce a feature on the controversy, which it did. Jastrow suggested that CBS should run a similar piece early in this year's Masters coverage. He added, "They have to give both sides an airing."

Bob Costas, the NBC Sports and HBO Sports commentator, said that a network must "acknowledge and communicate" that "protests are part of an event."

"The producers," he said, "owe it to the broadcasters and the viewers to set aside an ample amount of time to address the issue." He suggested that CBS ask Johnson or his representative, to join a discussion with Burk "to cover the issue in a respectable fashion."

Costas added: "If you ignore the issue, you make it worse. It's like the elephant in the room. It can't just be noted. You have to do something substantial."

Costas and Jastrow said that if CBS addresses the controversy early, it should then follow up only if on-course events require it. "Even people who agree with Martha Burk want to watch golf," he said.

But Frank Chirkinian, who produced the Masters for 38 years for CBS, said the sports division should ignore the issue.

"What would you prove?" he asked. "What could you say? Why would you say anything?" He said that at best, CBS News should provide a brief report on Saturday leading into the Masters telecast. "But for sports to come on and do it would be terrible," he added.

One of the unusual aspects of the broadcast will be the absence of commercials on CBS (and the USA Network, which will carry the tournament's first two rounds on Thursday and Friday). CBS usually carries only four commercial minutes per Masters hour, as required by Augusta National officials who prefer more golf and less advertising.

But when Burk's protest campaign singled out the tournament's advertisers, Coca-Cola, IBM and Citigroup, Johnson took the pre-emptive step of telling the sponsors that their messages would not be required this year.

No one at CBS or Augusta National has been willing to publicly quantify the financial impact of the loss of advertising.

The weekend broadcasts could produce record viewership if dedicated golf fans looking for Woods to win his third consecutive Masters (he also won in 1997) merge with viewers curious about the tournament because of the news about protests.

Last year, the weekend broadcasts on CBS attracted an average of 8.6 million viewers, down from a tournament record of 10.9 million the year before.

"Obviously the most important criteria is the competitive nature of the tournament," Pilson said, adding that CBS "will get people who wouldn't normally be watching. They'll be curious about what might happen."


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