Why NBC’s latest golf TV gamble has our attention

Why NBC’s latest golf TV gamble has our attention

Pro golfers smylie kaufman and keith mitchell laugh from the NBC set at the 2024 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass

Smylie Kaufman laughs with Keith Mitchell from the ‘Happy Hour’ set on Players Championship Friday.

Getty Images

It was not hard to find the best seat in the house on Players Championship Friday. It was, of course, on the island green 17th, surrounded by some 10,000 or so fans. But unlike all the other seats inside the arena on 17, this seat was inside the ropes, with a pristine view of the action, sporting a trio of custom-designed directors’ chairs angled the perfect distance away from the tee box to allow for the wagering, trash-talking and bantering that makes watching the 17th in person one of golf’s essential fan experiences.

These didn’t feel like the environs for watching network golf television, which for last several decades has remained a bastion of nerdy formality in sports TV. But this was no normal golf telecast.

Rather, it was the scene from the set of Happy Hour, NBC’s new Friday afternoon golf TV creation starring Smylie Kaufman and a rotating cast of the PGA Tour’s star players. Every Friday, Kaufman leads the network’s evening PGA Tour coverage from the ground on this traveling set, narrating the action from that week’s best-known setting for an hour or more.

Happy Hour Smylie carries an easy mix of avuncularity and Southern Cool, and his frequent skewerings alongside the show’s guests — PGA Tour stars who are also competing in that week’s event — leave the show feeling unbuttoned and distinct. The point is to make NBC’s broadcast sound more Pat McAfee than Curt Byrum, and watching from the Players Championship, it was easy to see NBC head of production Sam Flood’s vision for the show come to life.

You’re reading an extended sampling of the Hot Mic Newsletter, where today Kaufman was gracious enough to join us to discuss the vision for the Happy Hour, and what that portends for the future of golf TV at this critical juncture in the pro game. (To receive exclusive golf media updates like this one from me, James Colgan, click the link here or the tab below to subscribe.)

HAPPY … HOUR

The vicious criticism endured by NBC’s golf coverage over the last 24 months has been mostly deserving, but the successes of the last few weeks shouldn’t be ignored. Like Smylie’s Happy Hour, which has turned one of the bleakest chunks of the weekly golf schedule (Friday afternoons) into legitimately entertaining television. 

ORIGIN STORY

As Smylie tells it, his launch into the Happy Hour format came from NBC’s (smart) instinct to spruce up its Friday afternoon coverage at the start of the shape-shifting 2024. The loss of lead analyst Paul Azinger and the addition of analyst hopeful Kevin Kisner gave the network two analysts with deep relationships in the pro game — and Kisner and Kaufman’s easy banter (including in one brief but memorable stretch about a pair of hand-warmers) encouraged NBC executives to try a test-run at the WM Phoenix Open.

“Well it started [at the Phoenix Open] because they wanted to have somebody on the ground there,” Kaufman said. “They eventually settled in on me doing it. I don’t know which alternate I was or what, but I was happy to do it. Then I think after that week, they realized that [Kevin Kisner and I] had some chemistry together and decided to put a brand behind it.”

STAR-STUDDED

The format places Smylie right in the heart of the action. Utilizing a makeshift studio on that week’s signature hole, he’s able to chat with players, giggle alongside good buddy Kevin Kisner, and generally be, in his words, “a good Southern Boy.”

It’s a great format for Kaufman, who is a really intriguing mix of well-connected and easy to like — but it’s also a great format for NBC at a time when the conversation is about making golf on TV less stale.

“It gives me the opportunity to show my personality — having players come on, getting some insight about how the golf course is playing, and also giving them an opportunity to show their personality as well as improve the TV product for us,” Kaufman said.

LOOKING AHEAD

Happy Hour could be the next big thing in golf TV, but if it’s not, I was surprised to learn that Kaufman sees all manner of cross-applicable skills.

“I think it’s helped me become a better interviewer and a better listener,” he said. “I think also learning how to be a traditional holes guy, which is basically what this is, along with being an interviewer and monitoring the action and throwing it to commercial breaks at times — it’s just a lot of hats to wear, but it’s something that I feel like I’m capable of doing with more and more reps. Just grateful for the opportunity to showcase.”

WHY IT MATTERS

While Happy Hour is a fun experiment, at stake in the big picture here is no less than the future of golf on television. For the PGA Tour, sprucing the telecast format and finding ways to juice engagement with a bigger audience is perhaps the single most valuable key to ensuring the sport can engender a significant return on investment from billions in prospective equity funding from the SSG and PIF. The money will help smooth over a rocky last 24 months with players, but the truth is that it will be short-lived without a similar investment to help stem the tide of an aging (and fading) fanbase.

Happy Hour is just one effort to that end, but it’s a notable one for what it represents: a willingness to innovate and shift the commercial product to meet the needs of consumers. Like most other golf TV innovations, its success will eventually be beholden to the willingness of the game’s stars to participate regularly and actively, but it’s hard to knock the process here.

And the seating arrangement is pretty sweet, too.

Sign up for the Hot Mic Newsletter below to receive my insights direct to your inbox each week.

NEWSLETTER

Sign up for GOLF’s Hot Mic Newsletter!

Want exclusive golf media news in your inbox? Sign up for the Hot Mic Newsletter with James Colgan!

SIGN UP

hot mic logo

James Colgan

Golf.com Editor

James Colgan is a news and features editor at GOLF, writing stories for the website and magazine. He manages the Hot Mic, GOLF’s media vertical, and utilizes his on-camera experience across the brand’s platforms. Prior to joining GOLF, James graduated from Syracuse University, during which time he was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from. He can be reached at [email protected].

Kate Middleton’s Photoshop Saga: What You Need to Know About Photo Editing Previous post Kate Middleton’s Photoshop Saga: What You Need to Know About Photo Editing
Prince’s music will reportedly be used in a new jukebox musical movie Next post Prince’s music will reportedly be used in a new jukebox musical movie