Poker show holds own against Masters

NBC has an excellent hole card in poker.

On Sunday the network launched the third season of the “National Heads-Up Poker Championship” smack up against CBS’ broadcast of the Masters golf tournament in certain parts of the country. Numbers for the hourlong competition — 1.7 rating with a 5 share — were 15% higher than last year.

In cities such as Boston, Washington, D.C., and Denver, viewership was even better. In Seattle, poker got a 4.9 rating and 15 share.

So much for the assumption that the poker craze is slowing down.

“We were looking for a time of the year where we could maximize the show,” said NBC Sports executive VP Jon Miller. “We found April through early May to be perfect, and to air it at noon is a good time of the day in terms of competition. Baseball and basketball don’t start until around 1, and NASCAR starts later.”

Format, shot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, has two players going up against one another and includes both seasoned pros and celebs who have a passion for the game. Participants include Tobey Maguire, Jennifer Tilly, Gabe Kaplan and Don Cheadle.

The Peacock is also doing well in the latenight hours with “Poker After Dark,” which airs six nights a week in the wee hours of the morning. Each Monday through Friday broadcast of “Dark” encompasses one tournament, with a directors cut on Saturday.

According to Daniel Negreanu, a World Series of Poker bracelet winner and one of the best and likeable pros on the tour, the Peacock is doing an excellent job of focusing on both the personalities of the players and the intricacies of the game.

And it’s those personalities that often keep viewers tuned in.

For temperamental guys such as Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matasow, a bad turn of the cards can turn into a volcanic eruption.

“People like seeing a train wreck,” Negreanu said. “These two are cartoon characters. They both embellish for TV but, at the core, they’re kind of nuts.

“Phil’s conscious of the cameras but I think his behavior is kind of counter-productive. If I was the head of Lexus, do I want these guys as spokesmen for my product?”

Over on the cable side, ESPN continues to do well with its “World Series of Poker” broadcasts as it will soon begin its fifth year of originally produced broadcasts. In 2004, 2.5 million viewers tuned in to watch Greg Raymer take the grand prize. That’s the most-watched poker episode to ever air on the network.

Game Show Network just bought the World Poker Tour from the Travel Channel for $7 million for 23 episodes and over at Fox Sports Net, “Aussie Millions” is currently on the schedule. “Poker Dome Challenge” — in which an amateur from Des Moines won $1 million — just wrapped.

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