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GSN Ups Ante as Poker Fades

Oct 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Despite dwindling ratings in the category, GSN thinks it has the killer app of poker games.

It’s what’s known as a “cash game.” Unlike the tournament-style shows that currently dominate cable networks, players will risk large amounts of their own money, and can cash out-or dig into their wallets for more funds-at any time.

“No one else has done cash-game poker on television,” said GSN President and CEO Rich Cronin. “The difference between tournament poker-even the World Series of Poker, with a $10,000 buy-in-and a cash game where a player can lose several hundred thousand dollars of their own money will be dynamic.” The new show, called “High Stakes Poker,” will feature professional poker players competing against wealthy amateurs in cash games with a $100,000 buy-in.

The conceptual twist exemplifies how fresh treatments are now required to get a poker series on the air. After two years of booming ratings and more press coverage than any other programming trend this side of reality TV, the televised poker audience is, in many cases, dropping.

Travel Channel’s “World Poker Tour” was down 17 percent in total viewers watching first-run episodes during its 2005 season, compared with 2004, according to Nielsen Media Research. ESPN’s “World Series of Poker” is down 14 percent season to date. CNBC’s “Heads Up Poker” tournament is down 18 percent. And among the three iterations of GSN’s own “Poker Royale” series, most are similarly down.

And those are the success stories.

The syndicated effort “Ultimate Poker Challenge” is struggling, having been relegated to early-morning slots in major markets. E! debuted “Hollywood Poker Night” this summer but has not renewed the program. CMT’s “Dead Man’s Hand,” like several announced poker projects, died in development.

The only series that bucked the trend was Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” which increased 12 percent, though its overall audience is much smaller than the ESPN or Travel Channel shows.

The question for networks and producers now is whether the numbers signal a downward slide or merely the stabilization after an impossible-to-sustain boom.

“People have been prognosticating the death of poker since we launched the sensation in ’03,” said “WPT” creator Steven Lipscomb. “What you do see is the maturation of a market. Most of the wannabe shows are dying out and the ‘World Poker Tour’ on the Travel Channel and the ‘World Series of Poker’ on ESPN are settling into ratings numbers that rival regular-season NBA or PGA events.”

It’s true that poker continues to draw significant crowds, showing a high concentration of persons 25 to 54 across all networks. On Travel Channel, for instance, “WPT” is still the network’s highest-rated program. Though originals are down, viewership of repeats has increased.

A degree of backlash, however, has been a long time coming. A news database search on articles published in 2005 containing the words “poker,” “cable” and “series” turned up 1,026 stories, many wide-eyed and touting how poker is suddenly popular on TV. But is there a more appropriate jump-the-shark moment than this summer’s announcement that a Los Angeles company was shopping a show called “The World Series of Poker Robots”?

“The media wants to help create the phenomenon, hype it, then kill it,” Mr. Lipscomb said.

GSN hopes “High Stakes Poker” will represent the next generation of poker programming. The cash-game concept is based on “the big game,” an ongoing, private West Coast-based game in which high-rolling businessmen are typically fleeced of their funds by experienced pros. GSN has lined up pro players such as Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and Doyle Brunson to compete against the likes of NBA Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Landry’s restaurant chain owner Tilman Fertitta.

“You can’t normally get into this game unless you have a lot of money and you can’t normally watch it since it’s held in private rooms,” said GSN programming head Ian Valentine, who ordered 13 episodes of the series. “They’re playing with their own money and lots of it. This is real poker, and we will also capture the rarified milieu in which the high rollers live and play.”

Another series in the pipeline is Mr. Lipscomb’s “WPT” spinoff “Professional Poker Tour.” The series became entangled in a bidding war between Travel Channel and ESPN that resulted in ESPN dropping out and Mr. Lipscomb filing a lawsuit against Travel and parent company Discovery Networks for “interfering with ‘WPT’s’ prospective contract.”

As Mr. Lipscomb put it: “‘Professional Poker Tour’ created such a stir in the market that litigation has ensued.”

Even if audiences have begun to tire of the poker saturation, new titles will continue to debut.

“We weren’t the first on the scene, but we’re riding the wave,” Mr. Cronin said. “We think it’s going to be on TV forever and ever.”