The fastest-growing cable channel, by percentage of daily viewers, isn't TNT, USA, Bravo, Spike or ESPN.
The tiny Golf Channel, formerly part of Comcast Corp.'s cable business, is claiming that title, thanks to new NBC corporate bosses who have insisted on higher-quality live and non-live programs.
One of NBC's first moves: canceling Golf's Amazing Videos, which featured 3-iron shots to the groin and other silliness.
The NBC regime took control of the channel within days of Comcast's acquiring NBCUniversal in early 2011.
"This is the biggest benefit of being owned by a media company," Golf Channel president Mike McCarley said in a recent phone interview from the home office in sunny Orlando, Fla.
Distributed to 84.4 million U.S. cable- and satellite-TV homes, the Golf Channel averaged 95,000 daily viewers in 2012 compared with 70,000 in 2010, a 36 percent viewer boost.
The other top-five broadcast-TV or cable networks by daily viewership growth between 2010 and 2012 were: ION, 31 percent; MSNBC, 25 percent; History, 18 percent, and Telemundo, 18 percent.
Golf says its researchers analyzed the over-the-air TV networks and cable channels available to at least 80 million homes.
McCarley, a former NBC executive under the highly regarded Dick Ebersol, said that the 500-employee Golf Channel, launched by golf legend Arnold Palmer in 1995, was seeking to develop programming around golf and the golfing lifestyle and recently released a live-streaming application similar to one used by NBC for the London Olympics.
The channel's core live programming is the early rounds of PGA competitions on Thursdays and Fridays.
In December, it added the NCAA golf championships. Terms were not disclosed. The college rights were previously held by CBS, Turner, and ESPN.
The Golf Channel's first men's NCAA championship will be broadcast in 2014 from the Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan. This will be the first live college men's championship on television in 19 years.
The Golf Channel will televise men's and women's championships the next year from the Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla., the first live women's college championship on television in 17 years.
The Golf Channel's growth has come with controversy.
The independent Tennis Channel contends that Comcast unfairly distributes Golf to millions more subscriber homes than it distributes the Tennis Channel. Tennis is available on an extra-charge sports package on Comcast, limiting the number of people who can watch it.
Tennis won the argument to be seen in more homes on the Comcast system before the Federal Communications Commission. Comcast appealed the FCC decision; the case will be heard in a Washington federal appeals court in February.
"Golf is a great channel," Tennis Channel spokesman Eric Abner said. "But we have always said that if Comcast owned Tennis Channel and did not own Golf, which one do you think would be in 84 million homes?"
Tennis is available nationally in 35 million homes, Abner said. "Part of the problem is getting into the homes so we can be rated," he said.
McCarley anticipates future growth globally - Golf is available in 35 million non-U.S. homes - and excitement around golf's return to the Olympics in 2016.
The recently released Golf Live Extra app is available only in Comcast cable-TV markets, such as Philadelphia. But the Golf Channel plans eventually to make it available to subscribers of other pay-TV services. Customers will have to authenticate that they are cable- or satellite-TV subscribers for access to the Golf Live stream - as they did to access the NBC streaming of the Olympics.
"There were people for years who wanted to watch golf on Thursday or Friday but couldn't because they couldn't get to a TV," because they were at the office. Now they can.