WHEN ESPN went on the air 16 years ago, many observers wondered if sports viewing had gone over the edge. The all-sports network has survived and prospered, leaving the question of ''How much is too much?'' still on the table.
The Golf Channel, launched Jan. 17, seems eager to revisit the question.
As the name implies, the channel offers all golf, all the time -- more than golf insiders are prepared for, perhaps. ''I don't even have time to watch everything that's on [TV] now [golf-wise] and have any kind of a life,'' says Nick Seitz, editor in chief of Golf Digest magazine.
How can such a formula succeed? The answer, executives of the channel say, lies in the fact that ''golf is not just a game, it's a lifestyle.''
''People become more involved in golf than they do other sports,'' says Bob Greenway, the Golf Channel's senior vice president of programming and operations. ''It's not just the participatory aspect. It's the fervent way they care about the game.''
No one, doubtless, cares about it more than Arnold Palmer, the channel's co-founder. Palmer's partner is cable magnate Joe Gibbs, who came up with the idea and got Arnie to join him. The $80-million venture is tucked into an office park not far from Palmer's home on the outskirts of Orlando. It employs nearly 150 people in what is thought to be the second fully digital broadcast facility in the United States.
At this spring's Nestle Invitational, played at Palmer's Bay Hill Club, Palmer said the basic concept for the channel appealed to him from the start. ''I wondered what you could do 24 hours a day to keep the attention of an audience,'' he says. ''Right now. I couldn't be more pleased.''
Not surprisingly, the Golf Channel carries more tournament coverage -- live and taped -- than anyone. Besides the major men's and women's tours, there are senior, European, and prep-league pro events, and the channel carries as many of them as possible, with pre- and postgame shows.
These shows, Greenway says, are intended to address a situation that has long bothered golf watchers: the abrupt way that golf telecasts end. ''Even after the final round,'' he observes, ''it's like [the networks] say, 'It's over. Here's the [winner's] check. We're off the air, on to other programs.' Since we don't have any other obligations, we can talk to the players.''
Given the Golf Channel's total commitment to the game, it has also greatly expanded tournament-viewing opportunities.
Until now, says Gary Stevenson, the channel's chief operating officer and former PGA Tour vice president, ''golfers have not been able to get golf when they wanted to see it. A lot of golfers may be playing in the afternoon, but they still want to see tournaments.''
Major networks normally carry only the last two rounds of four-round tournaments, confining their coverage to a couple of hours on weekends. The Golf Channel, on the other hand, provides several opportunities in any 24-hour cycle to see chunks of tournament action, including replays and historical footage.
The major tournaments typically keep video highlights, but most of these records have remained in libraries and archives.
''The Augusta National Golf Club has highlight films of the Masters going back to 1960,'' Greenway says, ''but they had never been shown on television. The club never felt the need to expose those shows to anyone -- but there wasn't a Golf Channel, either.''
The channel has struck deals with the Masters, British Open, and other major tournaments to unlock their vintage video moments, and, in the process, reveal something of the game's evolution. ''The fairways now are better than some of the greens used to be,'' Greenway maintains.
With 168 broadcast hours to fill each week, the Golf Channel must look beyond mere tournament coverage.
''About 65 to 70 percent of our programming is original production,'' Stevenson on says.The mix includes news, instruction, interview shows, profile segments, travelogues, and fitness programming. Many shows are repeated daily.
Especially popular is an hour-long call-in show, ''Golf Talk Live,'' in which viewers can ask questions of guests, many drawn from the pro tours. Peter Kessler hosts the show on an inviting, clubhouse-style set. Kessler, a former voice of HBO Sports, is representative of the Golf Channel's talent: dedicated to golf, if not widely known.
A certain zeal helps at the channel, where a stated objective is to become golf's channel, not just the Golf Channel. Besides being the CNN of golf, Gibbs envisions his brainchild as a ''facilitator.''
''We want to teach people how to play and instruct them on the rules and etiquette,'' he says, adding that golf ''is the game where people call penalties on themselves. It's the most honest game.''
Although the Golf Channel is a niche service, Palmer speaks of it as a way to advance golf to a higher level and to preach the golf lifestyle to more than the choir.
''The programming is getting wide acclaim from [TV] professionals,'' Palmer says. ''We only need to make it more accessible to subscribers.''
But right now, even Boston-based Continental Cablevision (a major Golf Channel investor) can't find room for the channel on some Boston-area cable systems -- a gridlock that is changing nationwide with the fiber-optic cable-TV revolution.
As an a la carte service, the Golf Channel has a suggested price of $6.95 a month. Viewership numbers are sketchy at this early juncture, but the service is available to 8-million-plus homes.
People have suggested to Gibbs that he put promotional brochures for the channel in every private club in the US. ''What they don't realize,'' he says with restrained pleasure, ''is that would be only 15 percent of American golfers. Eighty-five percent don't belong to private clubs.''
In his view, the Golf Channel stares down, not a narrow fairway, but one wide with ESPN-type promise