Would You Believe...The Golf Channel?

If you've always wanted to play Pebble Beach, you may soon get to take a close look around--on TV. And if you like what you see, you can sign up for a tour package. And before you go, you'll want to order the video to bone up on how to play each hole.

Sports TV gone mad? Maybe. Depends on how many duffers tune in when The Golf Channel hits the tube next spring. Yes, The Golf Channel--24 hours a day of instruction, news, interviews, and tournaments.

MAJOR PLAYERS. This is no pipe dream in the pro shop. Dillon, Read & Co. is trying to raise $100 million to fund the ramp-up of the project, and the principals include Arnold Palmer, International Management Group's Mark H. McCormack, and founder Joseph E. Gibbs, a cable operator in several Southern states. IMG, though only a modest investor, helped develop the business plan and is playing the crucial role of programmer.

With the world getting ready for 500-channel TV, The Golf Channel is but one of dozens of proposed new contenders. Still, it has a good shot: There are an estimated 11.5 million golfers over age 18 in the U.S., the sport tends to inspire fanaticism, and many golfers are affluent. That could boost home shopping.

At about $5 a month, the channel needs some 2 million customers to break even. The main hitch, besides raising the money, is getting cable operators to carry it. "I haven't heard of anyone doing cartwheels over this," says Richard Aurelio, president of Time Warner Cable's New York Group. He says the channel will be "ideal" once capacity increases but adds that "in the present environment, it's bucking up against a scarcity problem."

Not to worry, say Gibbs and IMG executives. Because of new cable requirements, operators will have to add products that viewers pay extra for, such as The Golf Channel, to increase revenues. Moreover, Gibbs adds, "We don't in our business plan expect to be in every cable system in America by June, 1994." Indeed, the plan calls for the channel to be available in 10% of U.S. homes that get cable by the end of next year and 30% by the end of 1995. It doesn't look to break even for up to 21 2 years.

One question, though: Will all the voices on The Golf Channel speak in whispers?

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