LET highlights a lowlight

Matt Cooper discusses the current state of the LET’s TV packages, which are causing concern for those on the Tour.

The great electronic age prophet Marshall McLuhan (who coined the term “the global village” and predicted the internet) famously once wrote: “the medium is the message.”
Anyone who cares about the Ladies European Tour – and who is aware of the current state of the Tour’s television packages – might feel slightly queasy reading McLuhan’s words.
Make no mistake – the LET is, and always has been, up against it on television. Taking on the two men’s tours (which are covered in dazzling style by big broadcasters) and also the more glamorous LPGA is a thankless task. There is no comparison between the four days of live coverage those tours can boast and the LET’s one hour weekly highlights package.
But, at the end of 2010, the tour changed production company and the results have caused growing unease amongst those on and around the circuit.
When, at the European Nations Cup in late April, I talked to representatives of the Tour about the quality of the very first highlights package (which covered the Lalla Meryem Cup in Morocco), I was asked to remain patient.
It was a reasonable request, but, over two months later, patience has worn thin and the apprehension is widespread – players and caddies are worried, viewers and fans confused and, amongst the LET-connected media at Wentworth during the BMW PGA Championship, questions were being asked and eyebrows raised.
If you haven’t seen the programmes you might wonder about the alarm and question what could be so wrong about a simple highlights package? The unfortunate answer is: where do we start?
How about with the nuts and bolts of the production? The camerawork is clumsy, the commentary often ill-informed and the editing unusual. Those factors in themselves are bad enough, but the sum of these problems is greater than their parts and it impacts in two ways.
The first is that the action is compromised: player’s good rounds have been illustrated by drives that miss fairways, approaches that miss greens and short putts that are missed. The second is that the programmes consistently fail to tell the final round story in a cohesive manner.
The impression gained by all of this is best demonstrated by some of comments I have received or heard: “It makes the tour look amateurish.” “It doesn’t do the players any favours.” “It’s like watching golf coverage from 40 years ago.” “I don’t know what’s going on half the time.” “The commentary was laughable.” “It’s more like lowlights than highlights.”
Or, to put it another way, a bit of a PR disaster.
At the recent Tenerife Matchplay I saw the new production team in action and heard many voices of discontent from those looking on.
But what of the Ladies European Tour itself however? Last week I spoke to Axel Kaulmann, the Tour’s Commercial Director who oversees TV production and distribution, to ask for the Tour’s view of the current situation.
Matt Cooper: Could you talk us through the change in production company?
Axel Kaulmann: Last autumn I was asked to create a commercial strategy. It was a case of deciding where we wanted to go. The conclusion was that we needed to change our product in two ways: 1. To improve television coverage and 2. To go behind the scenes more and show the personalities of the players. We took offers from two new productions companies and also one from Ark Productions, the existing producers. We listened to their ideas and the senior team thought U.COM’s ideas fitted with where we wanted to be in two years time.
MC: How does the process work?
AK: The board asked for a strategy and we came back with this road to the future. The new TV production is only part of that new road. We were happy with Ark and with what they had achieved with the budget. We can say nothing but well done for what they achieved in the seven years they were with the tour.
MC: How do you feel things have gone this year?
AK: We need to integrate our changes. After seven years people knew each other and it will take time for a new team to get in place. But we are happy. It is about more than the TV highlights programme alone. We now have a worldwide news feed which is doing very well. For example when Christel Boeljon won in Turkey we had a Dutch interview that went out on Dutch TV that night. The quantity is there – we are averaging 500 downloads per event which is WTA (women’s tennis) level. Also, at the German Open, we went live – the first live broadcast of a (continental) European event. We are more than happy.
MC: I was in Tenerife and the feelings I picked up on about the TV coverage were negative. My own observations – watching the production team and then seeing the programme itself afterwards – backed that up.
AK: What were those observations?
MC: I’d say they were three-fold. The first is that technically it is poor; that’s the sound and camera work. Secondly, those technical flaws impact on the footage – important shots are missed and ordinary, even bad, shots are used as “highlights”. Thirdly, there seems to be no grasp of the sport in the editing and direction; the final round narrative is particularly flawed.
AK: We are talking to the players and to U.COM. There are positive things. A lot of people are happy. There are a lot of positives. We have to expect a transition period. We expected trouble and have had it.
MC: Can I give you a clear example from Tenerife? The shot of the week was Laura Davies’ approach to the 18th in her match against Becky Brewerton. She was one down playing the par-five final hole, she hit 4-iron from the rough to ten feet, setting up an eagle. It was the shot of the day in the match of the day. A cameraman was next to her but there was no footage. He had missed it.
AK: Well, that can always happen, that you miss a shot. We are trying to improve from tournament to tournament. We’ve struggled but feel there are more positives than negatives.
MC: Are you concerned that U.COM seem to have a poor grasp of golf? Watching it, my thought is that you only appreciate how good most golf coverage really is when you see something done badly and I’ve been told on more than one occasion that “it makes the players look amateurish”.
AK: They are dealing with a totally different budget to other golf coverage. Production of the European Tour has seven times the budget U.COM has.
MC: But their understanding of the game doesn’t seem to be there.
AK: We only have two cameras a week. We cannot compare.
MC: Are they seeking to get golfing broadcast professionals on-board to address their inability to tell the story?
AK: We are trying to improve.
MC: I’ve discussed the situation with broadcast professionals. Their opinion of the product is poor. Is the tour worried about the long-term implications?