Giving a Hoot

While many sports involved packed stadiums with loud, often boisterous fans, golf is the opposite. Silence during play is expected if not demanded, and even the television announcers only speak in hushed tones and whispers. The occasional “whoop” from the crowd when a great shot goes in is only noticeable because the proper way to acknowledge such a thing is the reserved applause called, tellingly, a “golf clap.” Groans from misses and the like are common, but booing a golfer or taunting one is almost entirely unheard of. In general, you’re watching golf on TV, when the golfer is about to strike the ball, all you hear is nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. Close your eyes and imagine what you’d hear if you were sitting on an empty golf course — trees, the greens, some sand traps, etc. There’s sound — it’s the sound of the wind blowing through trees, birds chirping, some sort of other bird or owl hooting. That’s ambient noise — it’s there if you’re watching a recording of someone’s backyard or if you’re watching a golf match. Wind, birds, etc. Nature. And if it weren’t there, we’d miss it.

But would you notice if it were fake? Maybe you would — if you were really into bird calls.

In August of 2000, Tiger Woods won the World Golf Championship – NEC Invitational in Akron, Ohio, by a large margin, finishing 21 strokes under par compared to 10 under par by the two runners-up. He took home a $1 million purse, a prize amount funded, in part, by the fact that the sponsors were able to sell broadcast rights to CBS. And CBS wanted its viewers to have a good experience. The television network couldn’t control the quality of the golf, but it could control the quality of the picture and sound. So, it did what it had to do in order to make the broadcast as appealing as possible.

But as had happened many times in the past, CBS found that the nature sounds one would expect during a golf match weren’t there. Specifically, there were no bird sounds — because there just weren’t all that many birds. A CBS spokesperson told the press that the network tried “putting dishes of birdfeed near microphones at tournament sites,” including the one in Akron, but when that failed, they went to the audio tape. Specifically, “taped bird calls were used by CBS during the playing of the NEC Invitational, the PGA Championship in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Buick Open in Warwick Hills, Michigan.” After all, who would notice? CBS figured they had a fool-proof plan.

And they probably would have, if only had they paid more attention. The taped bird calls weren’t from birds which were from the Akron area for the NEC Invitational, nor from the Kentucky area for the PGA Championship, nor indigenous to Michigan during the Buick Open broadcast. CBS decided to just use some generic recording of hoots, tweets, and chirps, expecting that no one would care. But some birdcall fans noticed — and they called into CBS to complain about the audible avian fraud.

Despite the fact that this was a pretty insignificant controversy, CBS decided to end the practice (at least until the kerfuffle blew over). In 2001, the New York Post followed up with the network during the Masters; a spokesperson informed the newspaper that “the birds you hear are live and they are indigenous to Augusta [where the Masters is held].”

Bonus fact: If you think CBS’s actions were scandalous, well, you’ll be upset to hear that they’re (pardon the pun) par for the course. As NPR noted before the 2012 Summer Olympics, over the years, TV production crews have become increasingly better at picking up the sounds of the Games, often through enhanced or extra microphones. But when that fails, faking it is an option. Per NPR, in 1996, the rowing events proved a particular problem — the sounds of people actually rowing were nowhere to be heard, drowned out by the TV helicopter and motor boats which run in front of the rowers. The solution? A producer took “a portable recorder down to the lake, taped the sound of several boats practicing, and put it in a sampler to play along with the live event .”

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Related: If CBS didn’t use this bird house, they missed a great opportunity.