FSN Places Bet on Poker

Dec 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Fox Sports Net is putting a big bet on yet another poker show, but a new offshore online gambling company is supplying the cash.

As part of a three-year deal estimated to be worth about $100 million, FSN will produce a weekly late-night poker series called the “Mansionpoker.net Pokerdome Series,” plus three high-stakes events.

The first big event, scheduled for July 12, 2006, will have a winner-take-all prize of $60 million, which George Greenberg, executive VP of programming and production for FSN, said might be “the biggest payday in the history of sports.”

With a half-dozen networks airing Texas Hold ‘Em, ratings for most poker shows have cooled from two years ago. But the game remains a strong television property. And while some versions may vanish, “The series that are distinctive will last,” Mr. Greenberg said, adding that what FSN has planned “is going to turn the poker world on its ear” with rule changes, new technology and graphics, and a fancy arena called the Pokerdome, where the series will be set.

FSN will also try a different daypart, televising “Pokerdome” on Sundays at 11 p.m. beginning in May. “We have experimented with poker in late-night,” Mr. Greenberg said. And that was without promotion, he added. “There will be a media blitz off-air and on-air to create awareness for this program.”

All of this activity is designed to attract attention to mansionpoker.net, a new free Web site backed by an Indonesian tobacco family that will allow visitors to learn poker and play for fun. Presumably there will be another site where people can play for real money.

Mr. Greenberg said everything being done on FSN will promote the free Web site. Most networks will not accept advertising for offshore casinos, which are coming under government scrutiny, but run plenty of ads for various “fun” poker sites such as mansionpoker.com.

In fact, while mansionpoker.net will be title sponsor of the new FSN series, getting billboards and some ad time, the network plans to sell ads to other Internet poker sites, including fulltiltpoker.net, ultimatebet .net, partypoker.net and pokerstars.net, that advertise on other FSN poker shows.

During an eight- to 12-week segment of the 43-week series, contestants will play speed poker, in which decisions to check, raise or fold must be made in 15 seconds. Under speed poker rules, viewers can watch 60 to 70 hands per hour instead of the 13 to 15 hands seen in normal games. “When you’re pushing around $100,000 in chips, those decisions might need more time, but as a player you don’t have it,” Mr. Greenberg said.

Other formats FSN will experiment with are one-on-one poker and amateur versus pro, with the pro starting with a severe chip handicap.

FSN is also near a deal for a location at which to build its Pokerdome, a “cone of silence” lined with one-way mirrors and cameras that will allow an audience to get into the players’ heads but won’t allow the players to gather any information about the game from those watching.

The network also plans to embed electronic chips in the cards that will let viewers know which cards are still in the deck and which are in the discard pile.

“Electronically and visually, we are pushing poker into the visual realm of NASCAR,” Mr. Greenberg said, adding that there will still be room on the screen to see the players. “At the end of the day, me versus you, close-up versus close-up, eye twitch versus eye twitch is what’s going to make the TV story.”

FSN is open to product placement on the series. “I do think there will be food on the set, or an energy drink. There’s plenty of room for signage on a poker set if done the right ways and with the right sponsor,” Mr. Greenberg said.

“Poker lines up very well with the demographic that also watches live sporting events,” he said, noting that FSN’s “Poker Superstars” was up 5 percent in its third season last year and is the network’s highest-rated prerecorded sports programming.

A spokesman for Travel Channel, which shows the “World Poker Tour,” doesn’t think another poker show will kill the golden goose.

“We built the television poker craze, and the ‘World Poker Tour’ is still the Travel Channel’s highest-rated series,” the spokesperson said. “The poker genre continues to be a crowded space and we are developing new nongaming programming that we feel will play off the strength of poker and will appeal to the adrenaline junkies and hipsters who make up our current poker audience.”

Ratings for season three of “WPT” were down more than 10 percent from season two, according to Nielsen Media Research. Season four premieres in March.

FSN also produces “The Best Damn Sports Show Period” and poker shows and has dabbled in some other game-show formats. The network has hired a new head of development, David Leepson, who has produced shows for MTV, HBO and A&E.

“We work for a company that is so vertically integrated and we have so many opportunities to take a look at scripts and reality shows that we do get calls from other divisions all the time, whether it’s FX, the movie division [or Fox Broadcasting], on programming that they would pass on but we might want to take a chance on,” Mr. Greenberg said. “If the planets are in line, then we might take a chance on it.”