Thoughts on Poker: How to Grow Poker’s Popularity and Global Appeal Part 3a: Television Coverage

Keith Woernle : July 28th, 2016

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No Limit Hold’em. Hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror.”

- Tom McEvoy

Cause and Effect.

Brian Koppelman and David Levien wrote Rounders. Chris Moneymaker watched Rounders, took up poker, and won the WSOP Main Event. We watched Moneymaker win and took up poker ourselves. Maybe even a friend of yours watched you play and now plays regularly themselves.

But regardless of how we all arrived at our destination, the initial big bang of interest can likely be traced back to our television screens. Ask basically any poker player created as a result of the Moneymaker Effect, and they will say the same thing – they started by watching the WSOP on ESPN or the WPT on The Travel Channel.

Televised poker is how so many are introduced to this game. It’s the gateway for literally millions of poker fans. Literally, millions watch televised coverage of the WSOP, WPT, and the like. The producers of these shows even explained the rules at the beginning of episodes for many years because so many watching were new to the game. And since this is the first impression for so many, televised poker needs to be the best advertisement for the game it can be. So why have the ratings dipped? What has changed in the coverage for the better? And what for the worse? And how can televised poker become the event it once was?

Well, a few ways. Solid, respectable television coverage along with good journalism and storytelling can be the make-or-break moment between creating a new lifelong fan or just someone reaching for the remote. So how does the TV producer get his viewer to not touch that dial? Simple – make his show more interesting.

Daniel Negreanu has spoken at length about how producers need to up their game when it comes to storytelling. Just as today’s modern poker pro has had to adjust to tougher competition, television journalism must adjust to adapt to new audiences while still appealing to their loyal viewers. No easy feat.

In his book The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King, Michael Craig notes that the World Poker Tour consistently got viewership of 5 million viewers per week. This is juxtaposed to last year’s WSOP Main Event final table coverage, which registered 1.2 million viewers (or so I’m told). That’s a pretty big drop-off. So how do we go about getting those viewers back?

As someone who has watched hundreds of hours of televised poker and has produced televised poker coverage, I feel I have a pretty solid understanding as to what works and what doesn’t. And the original televised episodes produced during the Golden Years of Poker (2003-2006) were, in my opinion, superior to the coverage of today.

True, part of my affinity for old episodes is one of nostalgia and novelty. I think that rings true for anyone watching decade-old poker coverage. We love seeing Moneymaker and Hachem win again. We love seeing Mike Sexton in big glasses. And we love seeing amateurs stand on chairs and scream and cry over the most standard of bad beats and suck-outs. It was the good ol’ days. Poker was easy, and everyone loved it. And because, for a lot of us, poker was so new and exciting, those old episodes remind us of when we first fell in love with the game.

But nostalgia tends to sugarcoat the past, and I have to remind myself to remove my rose-colored glasses.

And when I do, it’s clear that there was still room for improvement in those old episodes. Several segments were overly cheesy or overly dramatic in both old WPT and old WSOP episodes. I remember a segment where Chris Ferguson threw playing cards at a hockey goalie…

But even if those episodes were overly dramatic, I think the one thing they at least attempted to do was to create a narrative throughout the tournaments or (if that wasn’t possible)  at least at the final table. Anyone who has won a tournament can tell you that an entire book could be written about all the interesting hands, situations, and emotions experienced throughout their event. Finding those narratives and telling those stories can turn casual watching into a television event and a casual fan into a brand new player.

With all that in mind, I would like to take a look at what works best and, in my opinion, what needs to be changed.

1. Live poker does not translate well to television.

Unfortunately, as we all know, poker is not a spectator sport.

Unless you have a dog in the fight, watching poker without hole-card knowledge is painfully dull. Therein lies my biggest problem with live coverage – despite its live setting, I don’t find it to be more exciting. In fact, I find it to be less.

It’s simply the nature of the game. Obviously poker can’t ever be broadcast truly live in order to maintain the game’s integrity. But even with a 30-minute delay in order to reveal hole cards, poker, sadly, just doesn’t have enough action to warrant live coverage.

As I watch “live” Main Event final table coverage (from Australia, Europe or Las Vegas), one thought lingers: this is simply lasting too long for the fans at home. What casual fan is going to watch live poker from 8pm until 4 in the morning? I believe that this coverage is actually alienating casual audiences instead of intriguing them.

Now live (or 30 minute delayed) poker does have the advantage of its audiences not knowing who will come out the victor. In my opinion, that’s the best thing it has going for it. But I’ve found lately that I don’t particularly care knowing in advance who wins. I know who wins every WPT before I watch the coverage, yet I still enjoy viewing them.

However, I’m an exception to the average viewer. I go to Pokernews and ParttimePoker every day to see who has won what, but most people don’t do that. And I would wager that most people watching ESPN’s coverage don’t look in advance to see who wins or who has made the final table. It may not even occur to many people that it is even possible to do so. Furthermore, many of the finalists in tournaments these days are no longer name pros (or what the general public would consider name pros i.e. Johnny Chan). For this reason, casual audiences probably have a less vested interest in these final tables than they used to. And with less vested personal interest, these episodes really need to grab the audiences’ attention. And that is done that with good storytelling.

One solution has been suggested by many before, and I’ll echo it here: to adopt live-streams online during the event for the diehard fans who want to see every hand, and then create solid edited coverage for the casual viewers at home. I think for those specific fans who have dogs in the fight, who have vested interests, or who just love the game so much, a live-stream is perfect. Live-stream provides a great opportunity for hand analysis. David Tuchman or Tony Dunst or whoever really has time to delve into the minutia of each poker hand. It also allows for in-depth discussions and for the audiences to get the entire story. You know where every chip comes from, and there are no surprises. And that’s great.

For some fans at least. But, sadly, I think not for most. I think the average fan plopping down on his or her couch after a long day at work wants to watch ‘highlight hold ‘em,’ which brings me to my second topic.

2. Poker needs to return to more “Highlight Poker”

For the longest time, edited poker was almost exclusively that – a highlight reel. If you go back and watch the WSOP Main Event coverage from the 80s and 90s, you’ll see that the entire final table was condensed into just one hour of coverage. Restricted by time, producers were basically forced to show only big double-ups and eliminations. One never saw a groundskinner sneak into coverage until only very recently.

But demand for poker grew. In 2003 ESPN surprised audiences by showcasing the entire WSOP Main Event with 7 episodes. Demand continued to grow and 441 Productions increased that number to 10 episodes in 2004. Then 2005 brought 12 episodes. And by 2009 when Phil Ivey made the final table, there were 26 episodes recapping the tournament. The WPT also extended its coverage a few years ago to three episodes per final table. And since their final tables only start with six players, that means that many, many more hands are shown.

However, I think the original two-hour format was the perfect fit for a final table. I also believe that 26 episodes is too many for a poker tournament (and of course one episode is too few). The key is finding that sweet spot. And I think that spot is roughly two hours of edited coverage for a final table, and one episode of coverage for every day of play leading up to it. Clearly, I take a less-is-more approach to televised poker, but I think a return to highlight poker helps create a better story (albeit a somewhat distorted narrative) of what an adventure poker can be.

Because it’s more exciting. Watching two players at a final table take a flip for a million dollars is absolutely electrifying. It’s thrilling to watch people get it in for life-changing money. While there’s more poker and better poker with a slow structure, it’s not more fun to watch at home. More educational? Absolutely. But I think the average television viewer doesn’t want to be educated; they want to be entertained. Speaking of entertainment…

3. Television coverage needs to be more exciting because poker isn’t quite enough fun on its own

If you walk by and view a poker table in a casino, you’ll lose interest after about three minutes. The game simply doesn’t have enough drama without hole-card knowledge, and even then many hands simply aren’t very interesting by themselves.

If you like seeing every hand played that’s great. There was a place for revealing every hand, and it was called “Poker After Dark.” Watching a replay of the Stars Million final table on your laptop can also get you the every-hand fix, as can a live-stream. But showing several “raise-and-take-its” on TV is simply going to elicit a channel change. The fun needs to be re-injected into the coverage. Televised poker lies somewhere between reality television and televised sports, but it’s not quite either.

Now I’m not saying we need to have dogs chasing frisbees every broadcast or guys screaming as they stand atop chairs, but I’m not opposed to it either. I think the average television viewer watches poker as a form of escapism. They watch and daydream about the high-roller lifestyle and playing for millions themselves. But if all the poker players look miserable, and if no one is talking, and if everyone is hiding under sunglasses and hoodies, and if everyone is min-raising, and tanking six minutes for every hand pre-flop, and not caring if they lose, and not caring if they win, and not even smiling when they win the entire tournament, then maybe the average viewer at home thinks this isn’t such a rockstar lifestyle after all.

Maybe they change the channel. Maybe for good.

Some of this responsibility falls to that of the players. While having a deep determined focus at the final table is absolutely warranted, it doesn’t need to prevent you from enjoying yourself. If you’re reading this and you’ve made a very deep run in a big tournament, was it not the most exciting moment of your poker career? That joy need not always be suppressed. It humanizes the game and makes the product of poker more enjoyable for everyone. I want to touch more on this last point because while I feel television producers can do a better job of highlighting players, I also feel their job (like the game of poker itself) has gotten much, much harder in recent years.

*Come back next week for Part B: The Television Producer’s Job*

Thanks for reading, guys. My apologies for the word count of this entry, but it’s a topic I feel strongly about. As always let me know any thoughts or feelings you have on the matter. I always appreciate the feedback and discussion. And of course – good luck out there.

Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.

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