‘WPT’ Gets Royal Flush of a Deal

Jan 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Steven Lipscomb doesn’t have much of a poker face. As he left the ballroom stage at the Television Critics Association press tour in Hollywood last week, the “World Poker Tour” creator was beaming like a novice card player holding pocket aces.
Reruns of his Travel Channel series are performing better than the original premieres. The much-anticipated second season of “WPT” is about to launch with higher-stakes winnings and increased production values. Fans are having poker parties to watch the show and flocking to his tournaments-some spending thousands of dollars for a shot at making it to the coveted “WPT” final table.
“We are on fire,” said Mr. Lipscomb, whose recent renewal deal with the Travel Channel is worth $40 million over six years. “We spend a lot of time on cloud nine. It will be very tough for anybody else to catch us.”
Not that other networks aren’t trying-and not that Mr. Lipscomb isn’t trying to keep his show’s signature elements close to the vest. A controversy is even brewing over key technology “WPT” uses.
Since “WPT” reinvented showing card games on television last March, other networks have been scrambling to clone the show that single-handedly put the Travel Channel on the map.
“There are several producers that are trying to retool ideas about casino and poker,” said cable programming consultant Ray Solley of The Solley Group. “There’s a lot more in the development pipeline that’s still to come.”
Here are just some of the latest players:
* CBS is in early talks with Live Planet, the production company owned by Matt Damon (who starred in the poker movie “Rounders”) and Ben Affleck, about a prime-time poker show, sources said.
* GSN announced at TCA the development of “World Series of Blackjack.”
* Fox Sports Net premiered “Late Night Poker” last week. The one-hour, British-produced series is filmed in Wales and has a poker lounge ambience.
* Bravo launched “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” featuring famous faces playing at the Sands in Las Vegas.
* ESPN, which has broadcast the World Series of Poker since 1992, purchased the rights to produce the tournament coverage itself and expanded the series to a seven-night event. ESPN also has plans to increase its poker tournament coverage.
Mr. Lipscomb is even cloning himself-gearing up for the Jan. 25 premiere of his four-part spinoff series, “World Poker Tour: Hollywood Home Game,” featuring celebrity players. If the concept sounds similar to Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” Mr. Lipscomb said it’s no coincidence.
“You want to know the real story?” Mr. Lipscomb said. “They completely ripped the idea off from us.”
The way Mr. Lipscomb told it, “Celebrity Poker Showdown” producer and “West Wing” actor Josh Malina was invited to appear on “Hollywood Home Game.” He said the actor visited the season two “WPT” set, noted the addition of a “player’s lounge” for post-game chat, inquired about the celebrity show’s airdate, then turned around and pitched “Showdown”-complete with a “loser’s lounge”-to NBC, which owns Bravo.
A Bravo spokesman declined to comment, other than to say a poker show was in development prior to Mr. Malina’s pitch. Craig Schneider, publicist for Mr. Malina, called the accusation “preposterous.”
“`Celebrity Poker Showdown’ came about because of his personal passion for poker,” Mr. Schneider said. “It was far in development in advance of the invitation. He passed on appearing because it was a conflict of interest for Josh because of his own series.”
Mr. Schneider said the WPT founder is “jealous of the success of `Celebrity Poker Showdown.”’
In terms of ratings, recent airing of the two shows were about even (around 750,000 viewers). But that’s arguably a win for “WPT,” which has no famous faces and appears on a network with a lower profile than Bravo.
Either way, Mr. Lipscomb predicted “Showdown” would soon be outdrawn. “They rushed the production to beat our January air date and it shows,” he said. “[`Hollywood Home Game’] is about poker. When you see it, you’ll see how it should have been done.”
Another controversy regarding the glut of poker series is the use of cameras to view players’ hole cards. For years, poker games on television showed players sitting around looking tense. Then a player or two revealed his cards. Very dull.
When he first pitched “WPT,” Mr. Lipscomb told network executives he wanted to use cameras to reveal the players’ cards to live commentators, providing viewers with a godlike perspective on the game. He said networks had “beyond no interest.”
Confident of his vision, Mr. Lipscomb decided to raise independent financing to produce a pilot himself, and said he was willing to buy airtime to get the show seen. Once Travel Channel signed on, paying for a broadcast wasn’t necessary. But there was still a snag: Inventor, author, poker player and Holocaust survivor Henry Orenstein held a patent for using cameras to show hole cards in television broadcasts.
“I always thought poker would be big on TV one day,” Mr. Orenstein said.
Mr. Lipscomb licensed the patent from Mr. Orenstein, modified it, then patented his version of the card-table camera-a patent that he said will “attach” in a few months. Now Mr. Orenstein and Mr. Lipscomb are taking umbrage with shows featuring card cams sans licenses.
One might ask whether the patent will hold up, since a camera in a table is essentially a perspective. In other words: Is a camera angle intellectual property?
“The fact that the patent was issued means it’s probably novel,” said Thomas Zuber, a Beverly Hills intellectual property attorney. “Amazon.com was able to patent one-click purchasing, which was considered ridiculous by many patent attorneys.”
But, Mr. Zuber noted, the devil is in the details, and patents do get thrown out in court.
The rival networks issued a range of statements. ESPN said: “We’ve reviewed the situation and are confident there is no violation.” Fox Sports said: “We’re looking into whether or not it affects our program.” A Bravo spokesman said: “No comment.”
Mr. Lipscomb said he firmly believes in protecting his show. “These guys are going to wake up to a pretty big lawsuit,” he said. He doesn’t appear to be bluffing.