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CBS Holds Firm in Masters Flap

So far, CBS has managed to escape the heat of the dispute between the Augusta National Golf Club, host of the prestigious Masters golf tournament, and the National Organization of Women (NOW) and other women's groups. The groups want the small and exclusive club to admit female members; the club stubbornly refuses.

But the heat on CBS, which has broadcast the tournament for 46 years, went up at least a degree or two last week after a former CBS chairman resigned from the club in protest of the club's male-only policy and called on CBS to join him in taking action. Tom Wyman, who headed CBS from 1979 to 1986, was the first member to resign since the debate erupted last summer.

"CBS could at least come out in favor of a commitment from Augusta National on the admission of a woman," Wyman told The New York Times
in a story that ran on the front of the sports section last week. "They have a constituency that cares about this issue, and I was disappointed CBS didn't do more."

With five months to go until the 2003 Masters, pressure on CBS and USA Network, which carries the first two rounds, to drop the event could grow. To date, though, CBS has fielded only a handful of phone calls from people protesting its planned coverage, according to one source familiar with the situation.

Both CBS and USA Network say they're committed to airing the embattled golf tournament. Other networks may be watching events unfold with great interest.

It's believed that, if CBS or USA dropped out, another network would try to swoop in on the sought-after event.

If that's the case, though, TV sports execs at the other networks were not admitting it last week.

Turner Sports President Mark Lazarus said he would contemplate carrying the event. "At the end of the day, I think this is about exhibiting [The Masters] on television. It's about an event that people want to see."

Broadcast execs were more skittish. Said Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, "I would address that question if it ever happened. I never answer hypothetical questions."

It simply won't come to that, contends NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol. "[CBS] is going to broadcast the Masters as they have for more than four decades."

That's the official word at CBS. "CBS will broadcast the Masters," said CBS Sports spokeswoman Leslie Ann Wade.

CBS renews its TV deal with Augusta National annually. The network notched an 11.5 rating/26 share for this year's final round.

"After 21 years of presenting the Masters, we are honoring our commitment to our viewers by televising this world-class golf tournament," said USA Network spokesman John Kelley. USA averaged a 2.5 rating for its early-round coverage this year.

If CBS did bow out, though, it's expected that USA would follow suit.

NOW's campaign against the club has received wide media attention, including a flurry of stories in the Times.

The campaign has had some effect. Augusta released its three major corporate sponsors—Citigroup Inc., The Coca-Cola Co. and IBM Corp.—from their advertising commitments, relieving them of the pressure NOW was putting on them.

CBS and USA Network plan to air the 2003 event commercial-free. In past years, CBS accepted about four minutes of commercials per hour.

Women's groups are expected to stage protests during the events, and media coverage will no doubt increase in coming months.

"It will still be covered," said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports. In fact, he added, "all the attention that this Masters is getting will probably help the ratings.