They call him the Ayatollah of CBS, and he accepts the label gratefully and with gusto. "Everyone knows," Frank Chirkinian declares in a big bass voice, "that democracy is the least effectual form of government inside a TV control truck. There must be absolutely autocratic rule so there is no confusion as to who is in charge. In short, there must be an ayatollah. And I am he."
This June, Chirkinian will be 69, an age when life begins to slow the reflexes and muddle the synapses of most ordinary men—as well as some ayatollahs. But ask him if he has slowed down, and he shouts irritably, "I haven't lost a step, not a step! My reaction time is the same it always was." CBS apparently agrees with him: Last November the network signed the agile Armenian to a new five-year contract to direct about 20 golf tournaments a year. Actually, the contract calls for Chirkinian to play the all-but-impossible double role of director and producer—a complex electronic high-wire act that puts Chirkinian in a class all by himself. "To do both is unique," says Rick Gentile, the executive producer of CBS Sports. "Normally, a director handles the moving story line and the live camera shots, while a producer handles replays and the flow and pacing of commercials. Those are two tough jobs performed by two talented people. Frank does both alone. We'll never see his like again."
When CBS broadcasts the Masters this week, Chirkinian will be making his 37th straight appearance in the ayatollah's chair at Augusta. That will give him history's longest unbroken streak at the helm of one of TV sports' crown jewel events—beating out even the legendary Harry Coyle of NBC, who racked up 30 consecutive years (1947-76) directing World Series telecasts before his network lost part of the major league baseball contract to ABC.
Over the years with CBS Sports, Chirkinian has directed everything from Indy 500s to Triple Crown horse races to U.S. Open tennis to the Winter Olympic Games. But it is golf generally and the Masters specifically that have lifted him to something like immortality in the fickle, flickering world of TV sports. Veteran golf writer Dan Jenkins says, "It's no contest. Frank is the best there's ever been at producing golf on television." Even his competitors stand up and salute. John Wildhack, senior vice president of programming for ESPN, says, "He's the guy who invented golf on television. His style is distinct, and no one has come close to matching what he does."
"The other networks," says Chirkinian, "do it all the same—intensive focus on the leaders with commentators summing up the action from the 18th green, lots of canned interviews and features. By contrast, I have guys at all the holes so we get voice changes and a sense of being in the midst of the action. I show lots and lots of golfers and lots and lots of golf shots. I don't concentrate only on the leaders. I don't do any canned features at Augusta. Why should I, with all that live action to show? Bob Jones once told me, 'Frank, the more golf you show, the better your product is.' That's what I give my audience: golf. And I try never to subordinate the event to my ego. When I die, I want my epitaph to read, 'He stayed out of the way.' "
And how does Chirkinian stay out of the way? "It is a matter of experience and intuition," Chirkinian says. "Knowing the game is paramount. I know each player's eccentricities—which one waggles the club once, which one waggles it four times, which one throws grass before he hits. I know where I should be at each moment on each day. The Saturday show is different from Sunday's. It is a matter of whipping up synthetic drama: Will the ball go in the hole? Will it go in the water? Then on Sunday you get to the reportage, the battle, the saga of golfer A versus golfer B. And it is all played out on this beautiful stage at Augusta."
A 1992 Golf Digest poll of 15,000 readers revealed that a massive 56% preferred CBS's Chirkinian-driven golf coverage to that of all other networks. ESPN finished with 18%, NBC 12% and ABC 7%. That same year Chirkinian accepted a prestigious Peabody Award (given by the University of Georgia College of Journalism and Mass Communication for outstanding achievement in broadcasting) for CBS's coverage of the 1991 Masters. It was only the sixth time in the 54-year history of the coveted prize that it went to a sports program—CBS (and Chirkinian) had won the last time, too, for coverage of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. This year the network has been nominated for an Emmy in the outstanding-live-sports-special category for its 1994 Masters coverage. A win on April 25 would give Chirkinian his first golf Emmy.
Chirkinian's TV career began in 1950, when he dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania to go to work for $30 a week as an assistant director at the CBS-owned Philadelphia station, WCAU. "I was not a sports jock in those days," says Chirkinian. "I was a studio director." He won two Emmys for directing musicals and worked at everything from newscasts to cooking shows. Then CBS asked him to direct its broadcast of the 1958 PGA Championship at Llanerch Country Club in nearby Havertown, Pa. His work was so impressive that immediately after the tournament CBS hired him full time as one of a growing crowd of exceptional WCAU sports talents—including director Tony Verna, producer Jack Dolph and commentator Jack Whitaker—who went to the network.
At CBS, Chirkinian quickly blossomed into one of the great innovators in TV sports. "I did some wild things around 1960," he recalls with enthusiasm. "I put the first camera in a blimp over the Orange Bowl. I put a camera in the infield to follow the runners around during an L.A. Times indoor track meet. For the third leg of the 1963 Triple Crown, I put a camera on a 100-foot tower in the infield at Aqueduct [Belmont was under repair] to follow the horses all the way around the track. At the national swimming and diving championships I put one camera underwater to pick up the divers, and I had another that rolled alongside the pool to follow the swimmers. At the Olympics at Squaw Valley I wanted a camera at the top of the 80-meter ski jump. But in those days cable could receive power over a limited distance, and the engineers said there was no way it could be stretched up the jump. I said, 'I know you will find a way to get Chirkinian what he wants.' They did. They invented the famous black box to attach to each end of each cable length to increase the voltage and stretch it much farther. It became standard equipment, and it extended our camera reach on golf courses, too."
Chirkinian's innovations in golf are his trademark and his legacy. He placed mikes on tees to hear players' conversations and the sound of the club hitting the ball. And he added a whole new perspective to tournament coverage by putting cameras on giant building cranes.