Nets flush with poker options

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Of the varied niches of sports and games on cable TV, televised poker has experienced one of the most dramatic turnarounds.

A lesser-light feature on Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN for a decade, poker tournaments over the last couple of seasons have spread across to other networks, commanding increased ratings and multimillion-dollar prize pools, thanks in large part to new camera techniques that have revolutionized coverage of this card game.

The cable offerings show how "an unlikely genre of programming can suddenly come to life with viewers, even in a crowded field of choices," says Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, New York.

Faster than you can say "The Flop," the cable craze is getting a boost from after-class poker games on college campuses, video poker machines at casinos and innumerable poker Web sites. The growing number of casinos in the U.S., and the nation's continuing fascination with casino-themed films and TV shows, aren't hurting the poker phenomenon either, Mr. Scanzoni adds.

long shelf life

TV poker may never do "huge ratings," Mr. Scanzoni says, but he forecasts a long shelf life for the genre on cable TV, drawing a steady and loyal viewership. So far, automotive and beer advertisers have been poker's most prominent sponsors.

The cable shows tend to draw upwards of 60% men across a broad range of ages from teenagers through senior citizens.

Last year, Discovery Networks' Travel Channel launched its "World Poker Tour," now the network's No. 1 series. A catalyst was the use of lipstick-sized cameras to provide interesting new views of players' hands, including their "hole cards," making the game far more exciting to watch as viewers could clue in to both powerful hands and stunning bluffs.

Other cable networks, including ESPN, NBC's Bravo and News Corp.'s Fox Sports Net, have enhanced coverage of their own poker tournaments, while prize stakes and ratings for the programs have increased.

Over the first two seasons of the "World Poker Tour," the Travel Channel's Wednesday evening ratings have increased by more than 200%, and its championship game airing June 30 will have the largest prize pool in TV poker history with more than $8 million at stake, according to the network.

The tour also received a public relations boost in February when NBC Universal's NBC aired 2 hours of the show opposite Super Bowl coverage on Viacom's CBS.

NBC was satisfied with the results. "We didn't beat the Super Bowl pregame show, but we beat everything else," says Jon Miller, senior VP-programming at NBC Sports. "We covered costs and made a little money-but nobody makes money opposite the Super Bowl, because all the ad dollars are there.

"We did well with adults 18-49, men 18-49 and adults 25-54. We got the young, upscale male demo, which is hard to reach. We'll do poker again in 2005."

"Television [poker] works, because there's tremendous drama ... it's a game of wits and courage," says Rick Rodriguez, exec VP-general manager of the Travel Channel. Anheuser-Busch is a major sponsor; other sponsors include online travel service Hotwire and Time Warner's America Online.

ESPN is also seeing increased ratings for its longstanding "World Series of Poker," which first aired in 1994 but has also exploded in popularity over the last year with the addition of the card cam, and "ratings continue to go up," says Ron Simio, exec VP at the Walt Disney Co.-owned sports cable network.

In the process, "WSOP" has made cult heroes out of such personalities as last year's aptly named winner Chris Moneymaker. The final's game, called Texas Hold `em, adds to the drama as it allows players to go "all in," where a loss knocks them out of the competition. This year's series is set to premiere June 8, with the first of 22 1-hour programs.

MILLER AND TOYOTA DEALT IN

Sponsors of ESPN's "World Series of Poker" include Miller Brewing Co.'s Miller High Life and automakers such as Toyota Motor Sales USA, says Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN/ABC Sports Customer Marketing & Sales.

TV poker's appeal may be the fact that regular guys can relate to it. "With poker, you've got something a lot of people can relate to," says Mr. Simio. "Like golf, it's got a huge participatory base. There are people who stink and people who are pretty good. And for all these people, it's enjoyable to watch the top-echelon players."

ESPN also airs the U.S. Poker Championship at Donald Trump's Taj Mahal casino. "The Donald participates," Mr. Simio says. "He doesn't play, but he's there, and he's the master of ceremonies."

Bravo last week began its second season of "Celebrity Poker Showdown." "The celebrity chat [as they play the game] is a big part of the attraction-viewers get to see them in a different light," says Frances Berwick, senior VP-programming and development. So far, "Celebrity Poker Showdown" has drawn audiences that were about 60% male with household incomes of about $75,000.

"Celebrity Poker Showdown" rolls into an expanded, 2-hour, 12-episode season this year, featuring 50 stars including Matthew Perry, Norm Macdonald and Kathy Griffin. Winnings go to the celebs' favorite charities. Sponsors include Anheuser-Busch and Cingular Wireless, says Hanna Gryncwajg, senior VP-advertising sales for Bravo.

With poker such a hit on cable, GSN is looking to deal a winning hand of 21. The cable operation formerly known as the Game Show Network on March 15 debuted the "World Series of Blackjack."

"Viewers are a mix-male and female, aged 18-49 and 25-54. Blackjack's basic strategy is simple so it's attractive, but tournament strategies are intricate-card counting and so forth," says Rich Cronin, president-CEO of GSN. Miller is a sponsor of the game.

Advertisers, however, might be well-advised to pause a moment before putting their chips on cable card-playing shows, whether the programs feature poker, blackjack or old maid.

Poker "is a new kind of sport to broaden our portfolio," says ESPN's Mr. Erhardt. But when asked about the staying power of poker's appeal, he plays it close to the vest, saying, "Television is a very fickle medium."

contributing: kate fitzgerald

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