NEW YORK — ESPN may be playing another losing hand with “Tilt,” its second scripted original series after the 2003 “Playmakers,” which went off the air after its rookie season.
“Tilt,” which centers on the melodrama of high-stakes poker, premiered in primetime on Jan. 13 with a solid average of 2.04 million viewers. But in the four original episodes that have run since, “Tilt” has tumbled dramatically, delivering only 997,000 total viewers during its most recent hour on Thursday — a 51% decline from opening week. That falloff’s mirrored in the key demographic categories of men 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54.
“I wish the ratings were better,” said Mark Shapiro, exec VP of programming and production for ESPN. When the network commissioned the nine hours that make up the first season, he added, “We looked on it as a limited-run series, although we’re keeping our options open” for more episodes.
ESPN’s researchers say the numbers are not all bleak. “Tilt” shows double-digit gains in some key adult demos compared with its college-basketball lead-in. And the show is up by 9% in men 18-49 over ESPN’s primetime average during the five weeks of original episodes.
But in total viewers, the first five “Tilt” episodes are down 9% from the lead-in, down 16% from the primetime average and down 42% from the average of “Playmakers.” ESPN canceled the controversial “Playmakers” not because of low ratings but because the National Football League kicked up a fuss over the portrayal of some of the fictional pro-football players in the series as drug users, wife beaters and other unsavory types.
The inability of “Tilt” to hold the viewers who sampled the first episode is something of a surprise as reality-show poker has become a staple of cable TV. ESPN has scooped up big numbers with its cablecast of “The World Series of Poker,” and networks like Travel Channel and Bravo have engineered a Nielsen spike with poker, particularly when the game’s played by celebrities.
Shapiro’s concern on “Tilt” is “not so much the ratings as where does the plot go” after the first nine episodes. Waiting in the wings if “Tilt” disappears after its first season is a still-untitled boxing drama written and produced by John Eisendrath, the man responsible for “Playmakers.”