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Learning when to hold ’em in TV poker

Just over a year ago, poker-related television programs were often relegated to the wee hours of the morning, without a real time slot to call their own. Not many viewers were tuning in to see what in essence was a handful of people just sitting around playing cards.But on March 30, 2003, all that started to change. That’s the day cable’s Travel Channel broadcast the first episode of its “Wo
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Just over a year ago, poker-related television programs were often relegated to the wee hours of the morning, without a real time slot to call their own. Not many viewers were tuning in to see what in essence was a handful of people just sitting around playing cards.

But on March 30, 2003, all that started to change. That’s the day cable’s Travel Channel broadcast the first episode of its “World Poker Tour” series, the creation of Steven Lipscomb, a producer-director and former attorney.

“Before our show aired, there was no interest in (televised) poker,” says Lipscomb, founder and CEO of the World Poker Tour. “Poker had been airing for years, but it was so poorly done that neither you nor I would want to watch it.”

Lipscomb believed, however, that there was an untapped market in the 50 million-plus estimated Americans who regularly play poker. In spring 2002, he entered into a joint venture with Lakes Entertainment Inc., whose founder and CEO, Lyle Berman, is a Hall of Fame poker player. Then Lipscomb set about signing up 12 high-stakes tournaments held at casinos around the world and united them under the World Poker Tour banner.

Before signing with a network, though, Lipscomb had asked for certain concessions: To build an audience, he wanted a regular time slot and no less than two hours a week. The Travel Channel agreed, and Discovery Networks president Billy Campbell greenlighted 13 episodes of the series “before he saw one piece of tape,” Lipscomb says.

Rick Rodriguez, executive vice president and general manager at the Travel Channel, admits that the network took a gamble when it signed on to air the show. “Basically, management rolled the dice and decided to do it, but no one expected it to do as well as it has done,” he says. “It’s given us a buzz the network has never had.”

Lipscomb, however, was confident from the beginning. “I had turned down a number of great shows to do this,” he says. “The only reason I would do that was if I knew I could create a universe and the viewers would come.”

And they did. The first season averaged 790,000 total viewers, while the second, which premiered March 3, is almost doubling that figure, with an average of 1.5 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s as much as 200 to 300 percent higher than the average for other Travel Channel programs, which also are getting a boost as a result of the show’s success, Rodriguez says.

A table-eye view of the game

What Lipscomb brought to the table, literally, with the “World Poker Tour” series were his patent-pending WPT Cams: He uses up to 17 cameras for each tournament, including some that allow viewers to get the ultimate glimpse of the action, the players’ hole, or their face-down cards.

“I had to put you in the seat and let you look at the cards at the same time as the players,” he says. “It adds a voyeuristic element and allows you to be in the game, so you don’t miss out on the human drama.”

The ability to see the hole cards makes the game intriguing, but that’s not all, says “World Poker Tour” co-commentator Mike Sexton, who calls the series exciting, entertaining and educational. “You can’t become a better football player by watching the NFL every Sunday, but you can become a better poker player by watching the ‘World Poker Tour,”’ he says.

Sexton credits Lipscomb for turning poker programming into appointment viewing. “In the past, no one even knew when poker was on,” he says. “Now, Wednesday night is poker night.”

Other networks also are raising the stakes for poker viewers. ESPN, for example, has been airing World Series of Poker specials since 1994 but only last year began producing its own shows.

“A year and a half ago, if asked what the next big thing for ESPN was going to be, I don’t think anyone would have said poker,” says Mike Antinoro, senior coordinating producer at ESPN Original Entertainment. ESPN’s telecast of the 2003 World Series of Poker championship earned a 1.9 household rating, with 1.9 million viewers tuning in.

Antinoro says poker draws viewers because of the high stakes as well as the fact that it’s one of the few games in which amateurs can compete alongside the pros. Not everyone can play against Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour, but the aptly named Chris Moneymaker, a poker amateur who won his way into the 2003 World Series of Poker championship by playing online, ended up taking home the $2.5 million purse.

The pros themselves, however, were initially hesitant about the “World Poker Tour” show. Says Annie Duke, who’s been paying the family bills with her winnings for the past 10 years: “A player likes to keep the hole cards close to the vest, so I didn’t want people finding out how I play,” she says. But now, Duke uses the program to her benefit: She records episodes to study her competition — plus, she’s also a big fan.

Both Duke and Jennifer Harman, who has won two world championships, say their lives have changed dramatically since the explosion of televised poker. Both are getting recognized and asked for autographs more often. But Harman doesn’t mind; she’s just happy the game is getting more exposure. “Everyone is so intrigued with poker,” she says. “To be able to help people out and show them that people actually make money at the game is pretty cool.”