NBC pits poker against Super Bowl

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It's no bluff: NBC Sports is betting that a couple of hours of poker can trump the Super Bowl's pre-game programming.

General Electric Corp.'s NBC will televise a two-hour special of "The World Poker Tour" on Feb. 1, Super Bowl Sunday, bringing together winners from the weekly series, which airs on cable's Travel Channel. NBC is positioning the event as an alternative to the barrage of pre-game hype surrounding the game.

"We're introducing a property to network television for the first time," said Jon Miller, senior VP-programming, NBC Sports. "The thought was not so much as alternative programming but to take advantage of the extra 15% to 20% of the [viewership] on that afternoon. In that sense, we kind of looked and saw what the opportunities were and felt it was a good day to bring a program to network television."

Discovery Communications' Travel Channel will be the title sponsor of the show, which will begin at 4 p.m. and end a half-hour before kickoff of Super Bowl XXXVIII on Viacom's CBS.

The `Queer Eye' effect

"The World Poker Tour" has done for the Travel Channel what "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" has done for Bravo. Nielsen Media Research estimates between 3 million and 5 million tune into "The World Poker Tour" on Wednesday night, making it the channel's most-watched program.

Las Vegas casinos are reporting a surge in interest. At the Bellagio, for instance, where the NBC special will be taped, entries for the hotel's weekly no-limit tournament have jumped from an average of 30 players to more than 100.

`"The World Poker Tour' is bringing a new awareness to the excitement and popularity of a card game that is played by more people than any other sport in the country," said Lyle Berman, a former world-class poker player and CEO of Lakes Entertainment, Minneapolis, which owns 80% of "The World Poker Tour."

Indeed, part of the appeal of "The World Poker Tour" has been the amateur players knocking cards with professionals. Another hook is the sports-style coverage with 13 different camera angles, including the signature lipstick camera on the table that reveals a player's hand, as well as a slice of "reality TV" drama in which players are bluffing and betting on hands with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.

"I believe that's a big part of why we have become the phenomenon we have," said Steve Lipscomb, CEO of "The World Poker Tour." "Every show you start out with six people at the table and only one is walking out with the money. The viewer invests in the player he cares about."

NBC will use the Travel Channel's production and talent for the Super Bowl Sunday special. It will hit the streets later this month to sell advertising for the two-hour show.

"We're pretty confident we'll make money on it," Mr. Miller said.

But as football's biggest day and an unofficial American holiday approaches kickoff, will anybody be watching?

"It has a good shot at some success," said Steve Rosner, president of 16W Marketing, East Rutherford, N.J. "The first hour will get a good pop. If you're at a house that's having a Super Bowl party that starts at 2 o'clock, you might want to switch to something fun. But your diehard football fan will probably stay tuned to the pre-game stuff."

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