"In Play" Review, Q&A With Jimmy Roberts

Since the Golf Channel has been a part of our golfing lives, there have been tremendous improvements in tournament coverage and some impressive original programming. Still, the channel has been shockingly devoid of journalistic endeavors that have become huge credibility boosters for ESPN or even HBO and Showtime.

In Play With Jimmy Roberts debuts Tuesday night (7:30 PT/10:30 ET with an 11:30 PT replay) and even in its all-too-short thirty minutes, gives Golf Channel a much-needed sports journalism lift. The show promises to "deliver stories of courage, spirit and human drama every month" with Roberts overseeing a team of sports journalists "who will continue the rich tradition of NBC Sports storytelling as they capture the true spirit of a game that unifies everyone from celebrities to everyday people around the world."

Roberts, the longtime reporter and essayist for NBC's golf coverage, anchors from New York studios and is the reporter for the show's gripping opening segment: a look at golfscaper and convicted murderer Valentino Dixon. While some may quibble at the relatively quick coverage of Dixon's 130 golfscapes and how a non-golfer got into drawing golf holes, In Play chooses to take a serious-but-fascinating look at Dixon's claims of innocence.

In the Dixon segment, Roberts impressively credits Golf Digest twice for alerting the show to Dixon (and you can read his story here, as assisted by Max Adler). A second segment is ably hosted by Rich Lerner and is just a bit too brief of a visit to Arnold Palmer's warehouse of memorabilia, with the tour guided by Palmer. And the final segment in the show opener features Damon Hack talking to Christina Kim about her battle with depression (you also first learned of Kim's depression in Golf Digest, as reported on by Stina Sternberg and initially by Beth Ann Baldry in Golfweek.

My only quibble: it all went by too fast. Roberts' opening segment flew by at 12 minutes, leaving five minutes apiece for the other two features. Each of the shorter segments could have been just as long as the opener and remained just as compelling. But considering where Golf Channel has been in the journalism and programming department, In Play is a huge upgrade and stands a chance to become the channel's most compelling show for serious golf fans.

Jimmy Roberts kindly answered some questions via email about In Play, and after that are some embedded videos showing clips from the debut episode.

GS: Can you give us a little of the backstory on how this show came about?
JR: I’ve been covering golf in one way or another for more than 30 years  --I was actually the production assistant on ABC’s telecast of the 1981 US Open at Merion – but for just as long I’ve been fascinated by, and drawn to good stories. When I was younger I was really lucky to work with some pretty remarkable people – Jim McKay, Jack Whitaker, Dick Schaap, Judd Rose – and I guess I was pretty heavily influenced. As much as I wanted to do this, it wasn’t my idea.  Mike McCarley and I worked together at NBC.  This was his brainchild and I’m grateful.  

GS: How are you and the team behind In Play going about determining stories?
JR: Like any new enterprise, we’re trying to figure out what works best.  For now, we’ve got a committee of five people including myself – I’m the show’s managing editor – who meet once a week to consider story pitches.  We’ve tried to create a brief “pitch form” which distills most of a story’s pertinent information down to one page,  so we can approach the process systematically and efficiently.  Bottom line though, we’re looking everywhere and anywhere.
GS: In the first episode you go to Attica State Prison to interview this self-proclaimed innocent man who paints golf vistas but was not a golfer. So (A) do you think he's innocent and (B) what did you find most fascinating about his story?
JR: I’m not sure if he’s innocent, but I do know this:  Having been a reporter for a long time, I’d like to think I have pretty good B.S. radar…and I just have a hard time believing the man I met and spent time with is capable of the savagery described in his conviction.  As for the most fascinating thing about the story, I think I come away with a profound disappointment in the way our justice system sometimes works.  I do believe we live in the greatest country in the world, but this story made me more aware that certain aspects of our justice system are just flat- out broken.  

GS: What can you tell us about what went on behind the scenes to get Arnold Palmer to let your cameras in to be the first to see this "barn" full of memorabilia?
JR: I’d done this story for NBC a few years back when we were in western Pennsylvania for the Sr. PGA Championship … but no where near as extensively as we wanted to approach this.  Reporters trade on their relationships, and I am fortunate to have a good one with Arnold.  So does Rich Lerner.  I think that was what tipped the scales.
GS: Are there any stories out there that you want to do but so far have either been refused on by an elusive target?
Yes, there is one I desperately want to do, but we’ve been turned away.  I’d rather not say what it is, but I’m not giving up.
GS: Some of the trailers for the show have suggested a lot of heart-string pulling, heavy stuff, will there be a balance of the lighter and quirkier side too or is this going to be a pretty serious show?
JR: There may be some shows that skew serious, but we’re a magazine, and I think our goal is to strive for balance.  We’ll have some fun.  I don’t think there’s a formula, but as I said, like all things in life:  balance is good.
GS: Finally, you wrote and produced for Howard Cosell at ABC. How was that and what do you think he'd make of what you've become?
JR: Working for Howard was a trip.  His last show for ABC was in 1985.  That means if you’re 30, you probably have no idea what an outrageous and powerful personality he was.  He liked to say that he was one of the three “C’s” of television (Walter) Cronkite, (Johnny) Carson, and Cosell.  He was outrageous.  It was a lot of fun to be young and along for that magic carpet ride.  As for what he’d make of me?  I can almost hear his voice now:  “Roberts, he’s a fraud!  If there’s anything worthy he’s ever done – and I doubt it -- he learned it from me!”

You can watch a trailer for In Play trailer here though it's sadly fronted by an ad. Yes, an ad within an ad.

A teaser of the Palmer segment, with a look at The King's warehouse/treasure trove.