Cablers play poker to full house

Lipscomb has helped card game flush out fans

Poker is starting to elbow its way into the ranks of football, baseball and basketball as a competitive TV phenomenon that’s winning the loyalty of masses of viewers.

The signs of a runaway trend are unmistakable:

  • The Travel Channel is harvesting its best ratings ever with the 6-month-old World Poker Tour.

  • ESPN has turned the World Series of Poker from a once-a-year one-hour snoozefest into a seven-week Nielsen eye-opener.

  • Bravo and Travel are planning celebrity poker events featuring names like Jack Black, Ben Affleck, David Schwimmer and Martin Sheen.

  • The Fox Sports Net is negotiating with an unidentified entrepreneur for a six-hour Thanksgiving Day poker marathon.

  • A proposed cable network called Casino and Gaming TV plans to fill a number of hours each day with poker tournaments and expert advice on how to play the game.

The World Poker Tour’s founder Steve Lipscomb has made the game camera-friendly, devising a way to capture both the colorful professionals who play it and card-by-card analysis of their strategies.

“I’m not a poker player, but the way these shows stretch out the tension and build suspense has got me hooked,” says Bob Thompson, head of media studies for Syracuse U. “The soap-opera close-ups of the players bring a real intimacy to the event that’s missing from sports like football and hockey.”

People who’ve never sweated out a hand of poker in their lives are tuning in to the two-hour Wednesday at 9 p.m. “World Poker Tour” on Travel Channel in escalating numbers, propelling it to the network’s highest-rated series, the first signature show in Travel’s 16-year history.

These numbers include lots of young males, the hardest-to-reach demographic, prompting blue-chip advertisers to pony up premium dollars for Travel’s 30-second spots.

After only four months of the series’ first year, Travel rewarded Lipscomb with a six-year contract in August that could be worth $40 million.

Similarly, ESPN and the Binion Horseshoe Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas engineered a five-year renewal in June giving the network exclusive coverage of the World Series of Poker.

The deal turned out to be a boon to ESPN because a month later the network completely transformed its coverage. Instead of slapping together a modestly rated one-hour weekend-afternoon highlights show (standard operating procedure during the previous six years), ESPN ramped up the production values and carved out seven weekly primetime hours Tuesday at 8 p.m. from July 8 to Aug. 26.

These primetime World Series of Poker hours averaged well over a million total viewers, culminating in a record 1.89 million for the championship round on Aug. 26.

And poker might get still another boost from the switching on of celebrity wattage. Bravo has rounded up Affleck, Schwimmer, Sheen, Hank Azaria, Don Cheadle and Tom Green, among many others, for “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” a six-part part primetime series on Tuesday at 9, beginning Dec. 2.

Not to be outdone, Lipscomb has signed Jack Black, Drew Carey, James Woods, Fred Willard, Michael Vartan, Fred Willard, Camryn Manheim, Lou Diamond Phillips and Jennifer Tilley as some of the celeb players for “Hollywood Home Games.” Travel is planning to set aside a total of eight hours in primetime (two hours a night over four nights in March and April) for the “Home Games.”

Poker is riding the wave of “a stepped-up blurring of the lines between sports and entertainment,” says Dean Bonham, president of the Bonham Group, a sports consultancy. “No sport is going to succeed in the marketplace unless it includes an entertainment quotient.”

And lots of people are being entertained by the televised battle of wits between smart professionals trying to decipher body language, using every psychological technique at their disposal for one main purpose: to turn their adversaries at the card table into abject losers.

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