A New Game in Town

Nov 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

With poker shows scoring royal flushes in the ratings, Game Show Network is putting its chips on televising a blackjack tournament.
GSN’s “The World Series of Blackjack” will be staged as a weekly reality series set to launch in the spring. Since no organization oversees the blackjack world, GSN will mount the tournament on its own, choosing the players and putting up $250,000 in prize money, including $100,000 for the winner.
The first six-episode tournament will aim to attract the world’s best blackjack players, said Rich Cronin, president and chief operating officer of GSN. The network is already looking to double down: Also in the works is a follow-up celebrity tournament. With poker broadcasts on ESPN and the Travel Channel (and a celebrity tournament upcoming on Bravo), the game has become surprisingly popular programming. Mr. Cronin thinks blackjack might be even more appealing.
“Blackjack is the No. 1 casino card game. It skews younger. It’s broader-based, appealing to both men and women, and it’s easier to understand,” he said, adding that for the best players, their skill and strategy separates the winners from the losers. “There are some very skilled players who make a living at this,” he said.
Mr. Cronin said the tournament will be shot in a casino and the show will have a glitzy “Ocean’s Eleven” look. He expects to have an announcement soon about the location of the tournament.
The production will feature the backgrounds of the players, behind-the-scenes features, strategy tips and on-screen graphics to raise the ante on the drama. Casting has begun for a host.
Mr. Cronin said there may be some special betting rules installed to make the tournament play unique.
GSN is also planning a play-along feature on the network’s popular Web site. While gambling won’t be allowed, Web visitors will be able to accumulate entries to a sweepstakes on the site, which will feature tips from blackjack experts.
Mr. Cronin said the network has been trying to develop a number of shows based on casino games, but none has worked. The idea for televised blackjack came following a management retreat at a casino. He added that one member of the network’s programming department is a tournament blackjack player and will help make sure the network’s approach is authentic.
Mr. Cronin said the addition of a casino game to the lineup won’t turn off either regular viewers or advertisers. “The success of poker has already attracted advertisers” to shows depicting gambling, said Michael Sakin, GSN’s senior VP, advertising sales. Mr. Sakin said he has not yet begun to sell sponsorships, but the show offers interesting possibilities for product placement and integration.
Game Show Network is distributed to about 53 million homes. During October GSN averaged about 281,000 viewers in prime time.
Card games on TV are hardly new, but this year they are especially popular with viewers. ESPN televised the World Series of Poker from 1993 to 1998, then got back the rights in 2002. Its current contract runs through 2005.
This past July, original episodes averaged a 1.1 rating, representing about 996,000 viewers, which is above average for the network, especially during the summer. But the bigger surprise has been the performance of the “World Poker Tour,” which premiered on The Travel Channel in March.
Rick Rodriguez, executive VP and general manager of The Travel Channel, said he was originally “skeptical about the product and its mass appeal.” Turns out, it has both the appeal of drama and the appeal of being able to transport viewers to casinos all over the world and picture themselves playing for high stakes.
“It’s been doing great numbers. From the outset it outperformed our average ratings,” Mr. Rodriguez said. The finale of the tour drew a 1.36 household rating and helped power the network to a 33 percent increase in the second quarter. “What was really great is in its second run, the ratings improved over the premiere telecasts.” Last week, with the show in a third run, it pulled a 1.25 household rating.
In August the network renewed its rights to the tour, with options for another six years, in a deal reportedly worth as much as $40 million. Even without being told about GSN’s plans to televise blackjack, Mr. Rodriguez said he expected other networks to try to duplicate the poker tour’s success.
“Without a doubt, you will see other card game shows on television, where imitation is the highest form of flattery,” he said.