Poker on Cable: A Royal Rush

A few wonder if the trend is getting out of hand

TV poker is the most popular game in town right now, and a reliable draw—especially for male viewers. “There are lots of networks out there doing lots of poker programs, but still, I don’t know if we’ve hit the mountaintop yet,” says Frederick Christenson, ESPN’s senior director, programming and acquisitions.

A poker broadcaster since 1994, ESPN has boosted its Tuesday-night World Series of Poker programming to 32 hours from 22 last year. The sales side has been strong, Christenson says. This year, ESPN’s poker nights have averaged 1.4 million viewers for the past six weeks, roughly in line with past years. But there are a lot of poker events—and better ones in the World Series cycle—yet to come.

While the audience is roughly 70% male, Christenson says, that’s actually a smaller male demo than the audience for a typical ESPN game telecast—even though erectile-dysfunction drug Levitra is one of the sponsors; its logo is even on the poker table.

The Travel Channel, which has attracted an average of 1 million viewers to its poker telecasts the past three seasons, has just gone into production for World Poker Tour, to debut early in 2006. The poker series is the highest-rated on the network, attracting an audience that is up to 70% male, compared with an average of just over 50% for the channel as a whole, says spokesman James Ashurst.

While some of Travel’s celebrity-laden poker games have been ratings downers, Bravo takes the opposite approach with Celebrity Poker Showdown, which debuted for the season on Aug. 18 with a table of reality- show all-stars. “It’s one of the top-rated shows for us,” ranking be-hind only Queer Eye and Being Bobby Brown, says Shari Levine, executive producer of the show and VP of production for Bravo. But the celeb contingent may be one reason that Showdown draws only slightly more than 50% male viewers. Notes Levine, “It depends on who the celebs are.”

At GSN, “the network for games,” daytime game shows tend to run 60% female, says President/CEO Rich Cronin. Its Poker Royale and other “Casino Night” programming evens up the gender ratio.

Spike TV, with its guy-centric programming, is avoiding poker, says Kevin Kay, executive VP, programming and production. But the network is readying a show called King of Vegas, in which contestants compete in a variety of games to find the best gambler overall. And at GSN, Cronin has a bet that poker’s novelty is wearing off: His network is mulling Celebrity Blackjack.