They aren't your typical Friday night games with the fellas: ESPN and Travel Channel have wagered considerable hours against high-stakes poker coverage, and are winning viewers.
ESPN last Tuesday night recorded a 1.9 household rating for the championship match of the World Series of Poker, taped last spring from Binion's Casino in Las Vegas. Travel, meanwhile, has averaged a 1.0 during the third quarter with encore editions of two-hour blocks (9-11 p.m.) of the World Poker Tour
on Wednesday nights, scoring higher than the installments (a 0.85) when they began premiering in late March. The August 27 airing did a 1.3.
Why the poker push? Executives at both networks say 40 to 50 million Americans try their hand at the game each year.
The vicarious thrill of watching people play for millions of dollars — Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million in the ultimate World Series
match — is enhanced by better production values.
"We had done a poker show every year since 1993 and they had rated well, but they weren't highly produced," ESPN Original Entertainment senior coordinating producer Michael Antinoro said. "Rather than do a two-hour special, we decided to go with seven hours and let viewers get a chance to know the players a bit" via 40-second features.
Antinoro said ESPN has brought viewers closer to the action with a hole-card camera and statistics to update the best hand as each new card is dealt.
ESPN holds the rights to what Antinoro calls poker's top attraction for five more years, with options for more.
Travel has made an even bigger bet, investing an estimated $40 million over six years for the 13-tournament World Poker Tour. Programming vice president Dan Russell is looking forward to the next season, slated to begin next March. "The word of mouth has been terrific," he said. "People love the characters and the mental jousting. We really have high expectations."
For Travel, poker is a natural extension. "People visit different casinos and gamble on their vacation," said Russell. The shows include vistas in and around the resorts.
Travel is working on related specials, including one on female players. "For the foreseeable future, Wednesday is poker night on Travel Channel," Russell said.