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Poker Tournaments and TV Coverage
By Paul McGuire
April 5, 2005

A few years ago,  poker on TV was limited to only a couple of hours of coverage on American television every year.  ESPN had such a low opinion of poker that they always aired the World Series from Las Vegas in the wee hours of the morning.  It wasnít even good enough to be on their main channel.  Poker coverage was banished to their sister channel,  ESPN2,  where bass fishing,  spelling bees,  and the World Strongest Man contest flourished.  Unless you were an insomniac,  you missed the low-budget,  dull one-hour specials that poorly attempted to capture the entire spirit of the most exciting event in poker.  The only saving grace of these early specials was Gabe Kaplan from Welcome Back Kotter  fame,  who acted as the host.  He was the last person youíd expect to be giving color commentary on poker.  How could you expect a sports-crazed culture to accept poker as a spectator sport,  especially with Gabe Kaplan interviewing Amarillo Slim?  But then,  no one expected that poker would become a part of mainstream programming and poker tournaments on TV would prove to be a huge ratings success.

Over the years,  ESPN stuck with poker.  As technology improved,  so did the quality of their broadcasts.  Hole cameras, also called lipstick cameras, in several ways revolutionized how poker was viewed.  First of all,  you can see right away what the other players cannot see.  Thatís added suspense that never existed pre-hole cams.  Second,  you can see how your favorite players play their hands.  You can appreciate the skill that is involved and at the same time see them make mistakes.

In Great Britain,  John Duthie produced Late Night Poker, which was a more subdued version of the World Series of Poker.  Set in a secluded,  dark sound studio, the games didnít seem real.  But they get credit for introducing the first technological boost in poker:  They imbedded cameras in the tables and the players would place their cards over small glass cut outs for the viewers at home to see.

The other channels quickly took advantage of pokerís popularity.  The Travel Channel began airing episodes of The World Poker Tour.  It became an instant hit and now itís the cable channelís highest-rated program over the last three years. The Travel Channel made Mike Sexton,  Vince Van Patten,  and Shana Hiatt into household names.

The Poker Channel was recently created in Europe and will provide poker coverage 24 hours every day starting in May.  It features original programming including three new half-hour,  poker-themed comedy and dramatic shows,  a documentary series,  and Barneyís Home Game  featuring Barney Boatman of The Hendon Mob fame.

Hollywood quickly took notice of pokerís popularity.  Bravo, the arts and entertainment network,  created Celebrity Poker Showdown, a series of single-table qualifiers where the winners play at a final table with proceeds going to charity. They hired professional poker player Phil Gordon as the analyst.  Of course,  the skill level of the players was poor and the quality of the celebrities was often questionable.  Every week we got to watch one big-time celebrity fling around chips and crack bad jokes with four B-list celebrities.  No one seemed to care,  though,  as ratings increased every week.  Bravo inadvertently helped bring poker to a new demographic of viewers:  young women.

When some companies tried to pull ads off Celebrity Poker Showdown because of the crude language and excessive alcohol usage by the players,  the producers didnít budge.  In fact,  they increased the broadcast from one hour to two hours.  They had no problems finding advertisers to purchase commercial time.  Poker was hot and quickly becoming more popular than other reality programs.  That seems natural.  Poker is the ultimate reality show.

The Travel Channel also added their version of celebrity poker called Hollywood Home Game. The winners of their single-table tournaments win seats in actual World Poker Tour events.  They also have the benefit of consulting real poker pros like Daniel Negreanu and Jen Harman for advice during the tournament,  which is a nice added twist.  They also created Ladies Night, a tournament that featured six of the top female names in poker.

For the last two years NBC has aired poker tournaments prior to the Super Bowl. Both proved to be a ratings success.  They will soon be airing the World Heads Up Poker Championships, another first in poker television history.  The suits at NBC are aggressively looking to expand their poker programming.  There are rumors that they are trying to secure the future rights to the World Series of Poker.  NBC recently gave the green light for a sitcom based on the life of Annie Duke.  The comedy will star Janeane Garofalo and focus on the life of a single mom who plays poker for a living.

Fox Sports jumped on the bandwagon and began airing coverage of tournaments in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.  They created the Poker Superstars Invitational, which featured the worldís top players like Doyle Brunson,  Chip Reese,  and T.J. Cloutier.  Fox also made a leap with Live at the Turning Stone,  when they attempted to air the final table of a live event in real time.  The viewer got a sense of how boring tournament poker can be watching everyone fold hand after hand.  You quickly realized how good of an editing job ESPN and The Travel Channel had done with their tournaments,  making every hand played in the episode exciting.  Phil Ivey eventually won the first live tournament aired on TV and since then,  no one has attempted to air live tournaments.

ESPN added other events to its 2004 World Series of Poker coverage.  For the first time,  viewers were able to watch games other than No Limit Texas Holdíem.  We were introduced to Razz,  Seven Card Stud,  and Pot Limit Omaha.  ESPN has also aired the World Poker Championships at the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City for the last two years in an attempt to include more poker content on their channels.  They also introduced the first poker-themed drama series, Tilt, which chronicles the lives of poker players in Las Vegas.  At this point,  you can turn on any of the various ESPN channels and find a repeat of a random poker tournament.

The Game Show Network also got into the mix with a series of tournaments that did not do as well as anticipated.  They also created Battle of the Sexes, which pitted male professionals against some of the top female professionals.

It seems like you can flip on the TV any night and see some sort of poker-themed programming,  from watching your favorite celebrities misplay their hands,  to seeing Shana Hiatt interview your favorite professionals,  to watching the latest wave of poker-related sitcoms and dramas.  Expect more poker on television in the future. ESPN will continue to bombard us with many more hours of coverage from the upcoming World Series of Poker while new poker shows are popping up all over the dial.~~

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Paul "Pauly" McGuire is a writer from New York City.  He quit his job as a bond trader on Wall Street to pursue a career in writing. He is a novelist and screenwriter but became most famous for his poker blog.

The Tao of Poker  (  chronicles his daily poker thoughts from his late night forays into the online poker world to playing in home games and tournaments around New York City.  He also covers his adventures to casinos like Foxwoods,  Atlantic City,  and Las Vegas.

As an amateur poker player and an avid traveler,  Pauly often finds time to squeeze poker into his itinerary no matter where he goes.  He has played poker all across America and will track down a home game or drive miles out of his way to the closest card room or casino.  He has even played hold'em on a bullet train in Japan.  You'll most likely find him slumming around at the low limit tables on Party Poker.


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