KAILUA-KONA — The kind of scramble played last weekend at Waialae Country Club on Oahu was a no-win situation.
Before the final round of the Sony Open teed off on Sunday morning, union workers responsible for video and audio production at Golf Channel events walked out over stalled negotiations for a new contract. The move severely impacted the broadcast, which featured a heaping serving of blimp shots from overhead, no ambient sound or on-course interviews and a lack of close-up shots of the players.
The Golf Channel opened its coverage from Oahu by saying, “Folks, we’re focusing on the final groups and final holes tonight because some technicians walked out on the job earlier today.”
With no agreement between the sides as of Tuesday, the picket line extended from Oahu to the Big Island, with around two dozen workers and supporters from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) gathering in front of the entrance to Hualalai, where the Mitsubishi Electric Championship will be taking place this week.
The IATSE is the union for tournament technicians, including the camera and audio crews, as well as the majority of behind the scene workers responsible for the live broadcast.
Starting Thursday, all three rounds of the Mitsubishi are slated to be broadcast on the Golf Channel. Along with the Big Island tourney, the Golf Channel is also producing the CareerBuilder Challenge in California and a Web.com Tour event in the Bahamas this week.
“All we are asking for is for them to pay us what we are worth,” said Irish Barber, IATSE Local 665 business agent. “We are experts and are loyal and dedicated, doing our job day in and day out.”
The flyer handed out by the IATSE states that among the things they want to see the Golf Channel do is offer fair wages that match up with the industry standards, go back to a ten-hour day and treat workers with respect while valuing their commitment to excellence.
The Golf Channel is part of NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast, the largest cable company in the U.S.
“They are set to make a lot of money off of this new tax plan, but where is the payoff?,” Barber said. “None of that is trickling down to the people who actually put the show on. Our skill sets and techniques — you can’t learn those overnight. It takes years.”
That statement was evident during the Sony Open broadcast, which was pieced together and even included an on-course commentator climbing into a tower to operate a camera.
The coverage was a prevalent topic on social media, with one viewer tweeting out, “Golf channel right now is kinda like when CNN films Trump playing from behind some bushes.”
An extended six-hole playoff — the longest the PGA Tour had seen since 2012 — didn’t help the cause with the limited resources.
“They were doing what they had to do,” said Jeffrey Smith, a Big Island resident and long-time camera operator with the Golf Channel. “But I think you can tell by what it looked like that we are highly-skilled and should be compensated appropriately.”
Smith — who works the super slow-motion “X-mo” cam — has shot his backyard PGA Tour Champions event almost every year since it began in 1997. But the Big Island tournament has meant more than that for Smith, who has made it a tradition to host his co-workers after a three-week Aloha State swing that includes a stop on Maui for the Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open in Oahu.
“It’s a bummer,” Smith said. “It’s one of the best times of year for me to have all my people here. I bring them up and we usually barbecue and play games at my house. After three weeks on the road, it’s a nice to be able to relax with a home-cooked meal.”
A statement by the Golf Channel was not available by press time, but the network said in a previous statement that the sides have been working towards an agreement for nine months.
“Those efforts have not yet yielded a resolution, and we look forward to reaching a mutually agreeable contract,” the statement said. “We have contingency plans in place, and will continue to deliver coverage.”
It is unknown what plans the network has made to improve coverage this week if an agreement doesn’t happen. The sides were scheduled to meet again on Tuesday, but as of press time, no agreement had been reported.
“If I got an email saying I could go,” Smith said, “I ‘d drive down there right now and get to work.”