NEW YORK -- Card playing - an activity that filled the evening hours before television was invented - has improbably become one of TV's hottest programming trends.
After less than a year, the "World Poker Tour" is already the Travel Channel's most popular series ever, a status NBC Sports took note of last week in announcing it would air a poker game on Super Bowl Sunday.
Bravo, probably the most trend-conscious cable channel, beat World Poker Tour operators to the punch by putting together the "Celebrity Poker Showdown." The new series premieres Dec. 2.
"It's surprisingly entertaining and exciting," said Jeff Gaspin, Bravo's chief executive. "I was really taken aback. As a spectator sport, you wouldn't think that much of it. It's really interesting."
Steve Lipscomb, CEO of the World Poker Tour, started his company in October 2001 with the vision of creating a series of high-stakes games in casinos, much like the professional golf tour.
Lipscomb, a lawyer turned television producer, thought it would make exciting television. But even he admitted that most previous attempts to film card games were so boring they were nearly impossible to watch.
Seeking investment possibilities, he was laughed out of television executive offices.
"There was no interest at all," he said. "Not only no interest, but there was absolute disbelief that it would ever be interesting. It was lower than bowling."
He found other investors, and decided to produce matches for television himself.
Lipscomb spends between $350,000 and $400,000 per episode. Instead of three or four cameras, he uses as much as 16, enabling viewers to see every player's hands. Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten offer play-by-play and commentary.
"There's never a moment when you're not in the middle of the action," Lipscomb said. "I believe it's fascinating to watch someone in the middle of making a million-dollar decision when you can see what he should or shouldn't do."
Burbling synthesizer music adds to the sense of excitement. Each broadcast tries to create personalities, often to the point of cliche ("Gus Hansen, the Great Dane, has ice water in his veins," was heard during one match).
The announcers try to make the game understandable so even non-poker players can follow along. They don't quite succeed, but still create a level of tension and anticipation.
One unusual draw is that virtually anyone can participate, making the poker matches a version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," Lipscomb said.
The big matches have entrance fees of thousands of dollars. But for only $30, an amateur can enter qualifying tournaments with the prize being a seat at the table for a major tournament.
Lipscomb persuaded the Travel Channel to take a chance on a 13-episode series, and it started in March. A poker tournament may seem far afield from the Travel Channel's mission, but the network knew that any program it did about Las Vegas was popular, and trusted Lipscomb because he had done documentaries for them before.
The show was an immediate success, even more so when the entire season was repeated during the summer. The poker tournaments routinely draw two to three times the audience of the channel's typical prime-time fare.
The Travel Channel repeated the season a third time, and ordered a "World Poker Tour Ladies Night" special to air Dec. 10. A new season begins in March.
"I was actually quite skeptical of this as a television vehicle," said Rick Rodriguez, the Travel Channel's general manager. "The results speak for themselves ... I guess it goes back to the old Westerns, where so many key scenes happened around the poker table. There's so much drama inherent in that."
NBC Sports struck a deal with the Travel Channel for its Super Bowl Sunday special.
It will air opposite the endless round of Super Bowl pregame shows (the football game is on CBS), as NBC tries to snare bored channel-surfers.
NBC, which needs alternative sports programming since it has no basketball, baseball or pro football, may try other poker events if the Super Bowl Sunday show is successful, said Jon Miller, senior vice president of programming for NBC Sports.
Miller, who said he's noticed poker becoming popular on college campuses, will let World Poker Tour officials produce the NBC game.
"I think people really enjoy playing along," he said. "It's a lot like being inside the huddle and hearing what the offense is going to call and what the defense is going to call and seeing how it all works out."
Success has begat the expected imitators. The Game Show Network has announced "The World Series of Blackjack." ESPN has its own "World Series of Poker." There's talk of investors wanting to start a gaming network.
Lipscomb is particularly annoyed at Bravo, since he's trying to put together his own series with celebrity players.
Two years ago, a $10,000 poker tournament at the Foxwoods Casino had fewer than 60 players, he said. This year, there were 313 entrants.
"We have succeeded in branding poker," he said.
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