Burnett's big gamble

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"I never gamble," said Mark Burnett, reality TV producer. "Because gambling means that I really don't care if I lose it all. Mind you, I like sports beting, which is really just a calculated business decision, but something like roulette, to me, is absolutely crazy."

Certainly, Mr. Burnett is not worried about losing much these days. His "Survivor" franchise is going strong on Viacom's CBS, in its eighth season. "The Apprentice," his partnership with Donald Trump, is dramatically salvaging NBC's once-threatened Thursday night, cementing his position as one of the most influential and profitable producers working today.

And yet, he seems to be throwing the dice on his next project, a reality show called the "The Casino" for News Corp.'s Fox Television. Mr. Burnett and his team just finished principal photography and the show is scheduled to premiere June 8, as a replacement for "American Idol" in the Tuesday 8 p.m. time slot. Thirteen one-hour episodes were ordered for its first summer run, at a cost to Fox of over $1 million per episode.

But with no product placement or sponsorship deals, an ever increasing cry from consumers and conservative groups over risque content, and the Federal Communications Commission and Congress reacting by imposing higher fines for indecency violations, "The Casino" seems like a bigger gamble than even Mr. Burnett could have imagined when he undertook the project last fall.

"People don't compete and don't win anything in this show," said Conrad Riggs, Mr. partner and front man. "It's like `The Love Boat.' It's a drama, with different stories and different characters in each episode."

story driven

Participants on "The Casino" won't win anything beyond what they take home from their wagers. There will be no rivalry between cutthroat competitors, no struggle to survive or to avoid the ax in a corporate boardroom. It's an omnibus of little human dramas that take place in a real-life casino, The Golden Nugget, now under the new management of a freshly minted pair of young millionaires, Tim Poster and Tom Breitling. The show is structured so that each one-hour installment will contain complete stories, which is more DVD- and syndication-friendly than episodic reality TV.

Some advertisers, however, are already expressing caution.

"If everyone there is the typical casino-goer from middle America in their shorts and sneakers with long socks, standing in line at the free buffet, then it won't be too glamorous," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-director of global research integration at Interpublic Group of Co.'s Initiative Media. "So, why are we going here?"

"The Casino" revolves around the culture of gambling. Gaming has grown into a huge business in the U.S. over the last decade. The American Gaming Association estimates that $28.1 billion was spent in casinos in 2002, the most recent figures available. About 85% of U.S. adults have gambled at least once in their lives-60% in the past year, according to the Washington-based National Council on Problem Gambling.

Gaming is certainly in vogue on the small screen. While Mr. crew was working the floor at the old Golden Nugget in downtown Vegas, Discovery Channel was shooting its own reality show, "American Casino," which will also air in June. And Ben Silverman's Reveille Productions is in pre-production on "The Club," which takes place at the trendy Hard Rock Casino, and is expected to air on Spike TV. NBC has also had success with its prime-time drama "Las Vegas," which airs Monday nights and has posted a healthy season-to-date average rating of 4.8 among 18-to-49-year-old viewers. Cable networks have already embraced poker as a viable TV genre, with Discovery Communications' Travel Channel airing "The World Poker Tour," Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown" and ESPN's coverage of the "World Series of Poker." And still to come, the Casino and Gaming Television Network.

Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-director of media research at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, believes "Gambling has an interesting following on cable. But I don't know if they can generate the ratings outside of cable."

In downtown Las Vegas, five miles from the heart of the famed Strip, The Golden Nugget is jumping, the only casino that draws a crowd. Across the street is a shuttered landmark, Binions Horseshoe, the former home of the World Series of Poker and now the forlorn casualty of mismanagement and an abiding lack of sizzle in old Glitter Gulch. Downtown has fallen out of favor, and today crowds flock to casinos on the Strip or on Flamingo Road. Downtown Vegas has become a mecca for old-time slot players, street hookers and the city's homeless.

The mayor of Las Vegas hopes "The Casino" will be the boost downtown needs. "The show is cool, it's the greatest thing in the world, it's going to do big things for downtown Las Vegas," said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, a former attorney for reputed mafia figures, and soon-to-be a recurring cameo player in "The Casino." "I'm given to hyperbole, I'm the first to admit it, but the plans for this place are stupendous."

In the 18th floor offices of the Nugget's new owners Mr. Breitling's pet Rottweiler, Bally, roams the plush white-carpeted rooms, which are decorated with fanciful Western paintings, inspired in equal parts by Remington and Disney.

"There's no explicit sex, cheating or anything like that," said Mr. Breitling, 34, who is on the phone, describing the show to a Hollywood agent. He and his partner, Mr. Poster, 35, old college friends, bought the downtown Nugget and its sibling casino in Laughlin, Nev., in January for $215 million, with some of the millions they made selling the travel Web site Travelscape.com to Expedia in 2000. They are the youngest casino owners in Vegas and they want to return the 58-year-old Nugget to the Rat Pack cool it once enjoyed.

"We're launching a new ad campaign in the next four weeks," said Mr. Breitling. "It's all about the Nugget as classic Vegas, vintage Vegas with modern cool. We don't have to create a new brand, we will re-energize it. `Old Vegas for the modern day,' that is our tagline. "

advertainment

The show is expected to play like a 13-episode advertainment for the Golden Nugget, just as "The Apprentice" has become an elaborate promo for Donald Trump's real estate and casino empire. (Mr. Poster and Mr. Breitling did not invest in "The Casino," but they will participate in the profits, according to Mr. Breitling.)

"The Casino" also will likely be a giant ad for Vegas in particular and gaming in general. That could leave the show and Fox open to certain critics. While the Supreme Court struck down an Federal Communications Commission ban on ads and programming about gambling in 1999, a spokeswoman at the FCC told Advertising Age, "The FCC is still considering the scope of the rule in light of the Supreme Court's decision."

"It's obvious that gambling is hot and hip right now," said Ken Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "Our concern is that it is inevitably glamorized on these shows. We'd like to see them come with warnings, pointing out the reality of gambling." According to Mr. Whyte, his group has approached General Electric Co.'s Bravo and NBC to run a public service announcement about the social problems associated with gambling during the "World Poker Tour" and "Las Vegas," but the networks never replied.

Mr. cameras began rolling on the project when Mr. Poster and Mr. Breitling applied for a gaming license last fall. The process hit some dramatic, real-life tensions when Nevada gaming regulators questioned the duo's ties to Rick Rizzolo, the owner of the Crazy Horse Too topless club in Las Vegas who is the subject of an FBI probe into alleged ties with organized crime. The regulators granted them a four-year gaming license with the option of obtaining a permanent license within a year, depending on their performance. Therein lies the internal drama of the show: Will the partners be able make the old rock profitable and keep it clean despite all the pressures and temptations of running a Sin City business?

"This will be the first show ever on broadcast television that will show real gambling, up close," said Roy Banks, one of Mr. producers, giving a walking tour of the set on Nugget casino floor. "It will be all about gambling and sex, that's what Vegas is all about."

The casino is wired up with 22 Panasonic VariCam High Definition cameras, and 18 camera crews follow participants through the casino floor, into hotel rooms, restaurants, onto the streets and into homes of Las Vegas residents. Many of "The Casino" cast members, although all non-actors, were hired in casting calls around the country that sought-out genuine high-rollers, low rollers and assorted gambling-hall habitues. Some were found on location, such as Matt Dusk, a charismatic, Sinatra-like lounge singer who performs at the Nugget and will be one of the main attractions. Celebrities also will appear, such as Tony Bennett, Jewel and the rock band Barenaked Ladies.

The main action of "The Casino" revolves around a gaming pit featuring blackjack tables, craps and a roulette wheel.

On a recent Tuesday night, a mix of reality and staged action unfolded in front of the cameras. Gamblers arrived and filled the seats, mostly at the blackjack tables, unaware of the cameras. Then a bit of fakery ensued as a platinum blonde and her boyfriend, a short Italian stallion with frosted hair, wearing a glittering gold medallion around his neck-a pair of established characters in the show-are ushered onto the set by the production staff. The couple is wired with mikes, and they proceed to play and lose at craps. Then another bit of staged action: a huge birthday cake is brought onto the set and given to one of the blackjack dealers. But the candles go out before reaching the dealer, and the setup is re-shot.

in the pit

"All of the stories in the show revolve around this pit," said Mr. Banks. "But we just don't watch people play here, we follow their stories to other places as they build to a climax. And then they return here and they gamble their own money-it's all real money-and we either want them to win or we want them to lose. And overseeing all of these stories, like twin captains of `The Love Boat,' are Tim and Tom, and they have their own story and their own real money in this show, only it's millions of dollars."

Jon Nesvig, president-sales, Fox Broadcasting, said that advertiser interest in the show is strong, even though no marketer opted to be a primary sponsor. "It's a good show, but rather than sell it on an exclusive basis we decided that we would do better to open it up to everybody. Mr. Burnett has great product, it's fairly expensive, and since nobody wanted to step up in a big way to what we thought was the value of the program, we decided to sell it in a more traditional way," he said.

Mr. Nesvig said in another month, when the network starts to discuss the summer schedule with advertisers, "we will put packages together to take care of the upfront advertisers and `The Casino' will play an important role in those negotiations."

Several executives said the show will be rolled out in the summer as a test to see if it might then be slated for a second season as a fall prime-time show. Mr. Nesvig would not confirm this. The program hopes to pull in male and female viewers in the 18-49 demographic, Fox's typical audience, and from mid- to upper-income levels, as the show is expected to feature educated, affluent characters-again like "The Apprentice." Categories being targeted include autos, beverages, movies, fashion, retail, credit cards and banking.

Despite the hurdles, Mr. Burnett is confident he's riding a winning horse. "This show is a calculated risk as opposed to a gamble," Mr. Burnett said. "I employ a cadre of the most experienced, successful and accomplished non-fiction producers in the world. All creative endeavors are a calculated risk, but I'm always weighing things in my favor."

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