With all the buzz surrounding new Twitch poker online streaming celebrities like PokerStars’ Jason Somerville, it can be easy to forget that there is also a long, storied history between poker and television.
There is an ongoing discussion in the entertainment industry generally about where TV fits in a world that is increasingly turning to the internet for its entertainment. In poker, I think the differences between the streaming and television formats are large enough that there is room for each to be profitable.
Of course, ESPN’s 2016 World Series of Poker broadcast will once again be the centerpiece of the poker TV calendar this year. However, the new poker entertainment channel Poker Central is proof that people are still willing to invest in poker television content beyond just capturing the popularity of a single event.
Here are my top three suggestions for making 2016 a big year for poker TV.
Treat Casual Fans Like They Are Poker Players
The strategy of catering to recreational players is now in full effect across the industry. However, poker TV needs to be careful not to go too far in the other direction. Treating casual viewers as if they aren’t even aware that the game has a strategic component can be just as off-putting.
To be clear, I’m all for keeping the talk about semi-bluff ranges to a minimum. But that being said, most viewers in 2016 have some idea of starting hand strategy, and probably have even heard the term “range” thrown around at some point. Completely removing serious hand analysis can be just as off putting to casual viewers who are looking not only to be entertained, but also to play along as they watch and think about how their own table strategy matches up with what they are seeing on TV. Stripping the game down to a hollow vehicle for big pots and comedic riffs will come off as patronizing to anyone with enough interest to poker to tune in.
ESPN’s WSOP broadcast struck this balance nicely by pairing Norman Chad’s on-air comedic talents (although we all know Norman is secretly a student of the game as well) with the light strategy provided by Antonio Esfandiari. The broadcasts remain light, fun, and accessible – but still feel like a poker show and not a sitcom.
Create Interesting Lineups Outside of the Poker Ecosystem
One of my favorite moments in the history of poker television was watching Miss Finland Sara Chafak bluff pro Ronnie Bardah off a pot on PokerStars’ “Shark Cage” program. I mean really, what fan of the game doesn’t love this clip?
Building a lineup of poker celebrities such as Phil Ivey or Jennifer Tilly is important to the success of a poker TV show. But limiting the choice of player to “poker star” or “amateur” misses a huge opportunity for promotion and excitement to build around organic, “did you see that?!” moments.
Producers should always be looking to add personalities that are well known outside of poker but create the potential for moments to go viral on social media.
Showcase the Poker Lifestyle
Poker is a dynamic community played by a diverse range of people with many different interests, goals, and motivations.
The dream to make it big in poker and end up living a celebrity life like Daniel Negreanu is what draws a lot of new players to the game. But another huge draw to the community is the possibility of finding intelligent, caring people to collaborate with on charitable projects.
Poker TV is in an unique position to be able to showcase these aspects of the poker lifestyle and community in vivid, compelling ways that internet streaming cannot.
I’d like to see the “poker TV” genre expand more and more to include lifestyle programming. This could mean creating a program that follows Phil Hellmuth as he sits court-side at a Lakers game, or even a documentary showing the human impact of the money donated during the WSOP Las Vegas “One Drop” tournament.
Huge Opportunities to Tell New Poker Stories
The push to move poker towards internet streaming is important, but TV still has its place. For starters, streaming is not the only way that people consume entertainment, and the real-time nature that is its innovation is also its limitation.
While keeping some of its traditional format, poker TV programming should also use these structural differences to its advantage by branching out into what goes on in the poker community beyond the felt. Telling the game’s stories from all angles is something that digital streaming simply cannot fully accomplish.
Focusing on this approach would keep content compelling and relevant, even in the new age of internet based entertainment.