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Cable Bets on a Full House

Plans for poker shows abound on networks 1/11/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Gambling—or at least casino games—is becoming an addiction for cable networks. The recent card-game craze that started with the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour was a hot topic at the Television Critics Association gathering in Los Angeles last week. Nets from ESPN to Bravo are scoring with poker shows, and others are chiming in with their own brand of casino reality.

World Poker Tour, Travel Channel's highest-rated show, will return for a second season in March. The first season is now in its fourth round of repeats and scoring better ratings than the debut plays. But while the show is a "cultural juggernaut," says Travel's new general manager, Rick Rodriguez, he isn't planning to up the ante by adding more poker shows.

WPT is "what every network dreams of: a tent pole that brings a lot of audience in," he said. "Now the challenge is to develop the rest of the channel in other directions."

That's a tall order. World Poker Tour brings in more than double Travel's usual audience, typically a 0.4 household rating. Travel is planning WPT specials and stunts, such as an upcoming Hollywood celebrity special.

It's not alone, of course. NBC is slated to air a special-edition World Poker Tour: Tournament of Champions to counterprogram CBS's pregame shows on Super Bowl Sunday.

And like any big hit, it has plenty of clones. Just try to count up all the Trading Spaces knockoffs on cable. In the casino-game genre, there's Bravo's popular brand of poker, Celebrity Poker Showdown, which will come back for a second season this summer. Discovery Channel is working on reality show American Casino, about a Las Vegas casino owned by two brothers, for later this year. ESPN and Fox Sports Net also have successful poker shows. There's even a new cable network in developing Casino & Gaming Television, all about casinos and gaming.

The History Channel isn't planning a casino-game show, but the network is delving into a gambling story with upcoming docudrama Breaking Vegas about the famed MIT blackjack teams who used mathematical formulas to crack the game and take casinos for millions.

In March, Game Show Network welcomes The World Series of Blackjack, televised from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. At the same time, the channel is shortening its name to GSN, aiming to reinvent its image and broaden its focus beyond game shows.

"We really saw the potential to expand the vision here," said GSN chief Rich Cronin. All the new shows, he adds, have gaming elements. Broadening the network "makes this a much more attractive proposition."

With the name change will come new reality shows with younger appeal, in addition to World Series of Blackjack, which will air weeknights at 10 p.m. GSN has picked up reruns of the first two seasons of The Mole and Celebrity Mole,
as well as Spy TV. It also has two new original series, dating show Fake-A-Date and buddy-reality-and-challenge hybrid Kenny vs. Spenny. Of course, GSN will still have its tried-and-true classic and original game shows.

Of course, Cronin would have loved to have World Poker Tour. But, he says, GSN's blackjack series is a fresh twist on the hot genre, and his programmers are at work developing more casino games.

Perhaps the person most amazed by the card craze is World Poker Tour executive producer Steve Lipscomb. When he first developed the show, he pitched World Poker Tour all over Hollywood but got no takers. "If we had to in the first season, we were going to buy time and prove that there was a market out there to be found," he said. Of course, that hasn't been necessary, since Travel Channel signed on. Now, Travel has WPT locked up for an exclusive, multimillion-dollar five year deal.

Televised poker "was a genre no one thought could work," said Discovery Networks President Billy Campbell. He loves that his Travel Channel was there first. "When you're first, it's tough to knock you off." n

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