Poker On Television - History

History

Poker has been appearing on television somewhat regularly since the late-1970s. In the United States, CBS started airing the final table of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event as an annual one hour show around this time and later by ESPN. For many years, the coverage was less than robust because viewers at home could not see what cards the players had or follow their progress visually through graphics. Instead, the coverage essentially involved the commentators guessing what cards the players had in a documentary style production.

In 1997 the hole cam, which allows audiences to see the hidden cards that players held in their hands, was introduced in Europe. The hole cam was patented by WSOP bracelet winner Henry Orenstein and first used in the Late Night Poker television series. It was used again in the inaugural Poker Million tournament in 2000 which boasted the attraction of the first £1,000,000 poker game on live television. By 2001, however, Late Night Poker had been cancelled in the UK and televised poker could no longer be found in Europe. In the US, the 1999, 2000 and 2001 World Series of Poker events were only broadcast in one hour documentaries on the Discovery Networks.

In 1999, documentary filmmaker Steven Lipscomb produced and directed a documentary on the WSOP for the Discovery Channel. It was the first U.S. poker production funded entirely by a television network rather than the casino. When the 1999 WSOP aired, it doubled its audience over the hour time slot. Seeing the audience reaction, Lipscomb believed there was an untapped market and began pitching poker series ideas to cable and network television. Because poker had been on the air for over twenty years, with little viewer interest, broadcasters were unwilling to commit resources to put a series on the air.

In October 2001, Lipscomb wrote a business plan. Along with poker player Mike Sexton and poker business woman Linda Johnson, Lipscomb approached casino mogul and avid poker player, Lyle Berman, whose company Lakes Entertainment agreed to fund the World Poker Tour—the first organized and televised tour of poker tournaments in the world.

In June 2002, WPT filmed its first episode at Bellagio in Las Vegas. Wanting to create a compelling, action-packed show, WPT took eight months to edit the first WPT episode. ESPN, who resumed their coverage of the World Series of Poker in 2002, featured pocket cam technology in their return broadcast—albeit, in a very limited capacity—prior to the WPT's first show.

During this time, the “WPT Format” was created featuring the WPT hole cam, interactive graphics and “live sports feel”. These new features put viewers into the minds and at the heart of the action. The first WPT episode aired on March 30, 2003 on the Travel Channel and became an instant success (the highest rated show in network history).

A few months later, ESPN's broadcast of the 2003 World Series of Poker adopted many features characteristic of the emerging WPT series; with an improved graphic display detailing the exciting action of the Main Event's final table. This, coupled with the unlikely outcome in the 2003 WSOP Main Event—where Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million after winning his seat through a $39 PokerStars satellite tournament—and the ensuing publicity only further sparked the already accelerated interest in the game initiated by the WPT.

These events are credited as being the main contributor's in poker's booming popularity—increasing the number of entrants into live poker tournaments (at all levels), the growth of online poker and the overall greater interest in the game—but above all others, the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event (and subsequent broadcast on ESPN) is most cited as poker's Tipping Point; commonly referred to as the "Moneymaker Effect".

Poker gained further exposure in Canada and much of the United States as a result of the 2004-05 NHL lockout, which caused sports networks in both countries to air poker as replacement programming for their NHL coverage.

The much improved ratings of poker television programs from this point on lead to ESPN covering many more events of the World Series of Poker (in addition the Main Event as in the past) since 2003, as well as covering some other tournaments outside of the World Series, such as the United States Poker Championship. Since it first broadcast, WPT has also expanded its tour stops from 12 events at seven casino partner locations to 23 domestic and international tournaments and 14 casino partners in Season VI.

Since the introduction of the hole cam and WPT television format, poker has become almost ubiquitous in the US and Europe. While poker originally aired on sports channels such as ESPN and Sky Sports has expanded to such "non traditional" networks as Bravo and GSN. All poker television programs make heavy use of the aforementioned pocket cam and television format, plus generally feature a "straightman" and a "comedian" type of commentators, with one often being a professional poker player.

With the ability to edit a tournament that lasts days into just a few hours, ESPN's World Series of Poker broadcasts generally focus on showing how various star players fared in each event. Key hands from throughout the many days of each year's WSOP Main Event are shown, and similar highly edited coverage of final tables is also provided. For the events in the WSOP before the Main Event, only the final table is covered in television coverage, similar to how the Main Event was televised before ESPN's airing of the 2003 World Series Main Event.

The World Poker Tour does not offer general coverage of the multi-day poker tournaments. Instead, the WPT covers only the action at the final table of each event. With aggressive play and increasing blinds and antes, the important action from a single table can easily be edited into a two hour episode. Although the tournament fate of fewer stars are chronicled this way, it allows the drama to build more naturally toward the final heads up showdown.

Although most poker shows on television focus on tournaments, High Stakes Poker shows a high-stakes cash game. In this game professional and amateur players play no limit Texas Hold 'em with their own money (the minimum to enter the game is $100,000). This game has allowed spectators to observe differences between cash games and tournaments, and to see how players adjust their play to the different format.

Poker's growth in Europe led to the creation of two FTA channels: The Poker Channel and Pokerzone. Both began broadcasting during 2005.

Although once popular poker television programs have steadily been losing their audience. ESPN is on contract to show World Series of Poker programming through 2017, though viewership has dropped dramatically since the early boom.

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