I remember it like it was yesterday.
As a fresh-faced youth, having returned from college, I plonked myself on the couch, looking for anything to watch on television. It was 2006, so mostly it was re-runs of Friends and Takeshi’s Castle, I wanted something more original, something exciting. And then I stumbled across it.
Six men around a poker table, each with million-dollar stacks in front of them (I didn’t know they were tournament chips at the time.), one particular man was given the most attention. A small, wiry man who seemed to act like a goofball most of the time, joking around with the fans and the other players, yet seemingly able to mind-read his opponents and come frightfully close to guessing their hands. This man was Daniel Negreanu, in one of the events that he won at what I would later find out to be called the World Poker Tour, and from then on, I was hooked.
I would watch every poker programme I could find on television, watch the repeats of the show an hour later and eventually, take the plunge by playing online myself. For many of us, it probably started this way, but the programme was different. In the late nineties, there was Late Night Poker, the show which revolutionised poker viewing by being the first show to use “hole-cams”, increasing the interactivity between the viewer and the players and letting them be able to understand what was happening.
Since 2003, shows like the WSOP and WPT showed viewers from around the world the American Dream, the working-class hero such as Chris Moneymaker being able to play professionals at their own game and win millions of dollars with just a $40 investment. After the poker boom, recreational players were a little more clued up with the game, and wanted something more than shove-fest donkaments. Enter High Stakes Poker, a show based around a cash game, the minimum buy-in being $100,000, but seeing players enter for as much as $1 million. It allowed deeper stacks, more advanced plays and the best cash game players (along with a couple of rich fish) show a game of poker where pressure could be seen on the faces of those who once seemed unemotional to the tournament chips flying around. Television made poker cool, and it led to other shows around the worl. The UK has numerous TV-friendly Poker Opens from MatchRoom, the UKIPT and GUKPT on show from Pokerstars, the PartyPoker Poker Den as an equivalent to High Stakes Poker and two dedicated channels on poker (Poker Channel and Sky Poker), it ‘s the same for television across Europe.
But recently, television ratings have dropped for most of the shows, and since Black Friday, shows like High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark, and The Big Game have disappeared entirely from the TV networks that produce them. Poker has been stale for a little while and something has to be done in order to freshen it up. Two methods may have the answer.
The first, is internet broadcasting, or webcasts. They’re already being used by a number of poker tours, the WPT offer live streaming of their poker tours, the WSOP have recently done the same with their tournaments after success of it with the WSOP(E), even amateur poker tours such as the APAT broadcast their tournaments online. Firstly, it can define their audience better into two categories, the category that webcasting can attract are those who likely have played the game for a while, follow poker forums, watch poker videos etc. Being able to watch any final table in it’s entirety will appeal to them, after all these are the people who most likely know who Eric Liu, Dario Minieri, Lex Veldhuis are. If you don’t know them, you’re in the second category.
The second category is those who watch purely for entertainment. They play a couple of hours a week either online or at small casino tournaments and want to see their favourite players. As I mentioned before on this site, the Epic Poker League has been acquired by the Poker Channel, and this is a tour that really needs to succeed for the benefit of poker on television, so what can they do to make a high-quality television show for the recreational player.
Advertise the right players – Shows like the WSOP, the WPT and High Stakes Poker did well because of the players on the final table reeked of entertainment value. Hellmuth, Matusow, Farha, Brenes. They may not have been the very great players, but they were better than average and very entertaining. Today, the WSOP suffers with their Main Event Final Table because they have to figure out how to make nine nobodies interesting. When Phil Ivey made the final table, that was the instant “Davids vs. Goliath” money-making spin right there.
When High Stakes Poker was sponsored by Pokerstars, it meant players from Full Tilt couldn’t play. The likes of Ivey, Antonius, Dwan and Benyamine, four players who were very popular to watch, were not seen, and this caused a very noticeable drop in play and entertainment.
The EPL only allows those who have reached certain criteria in prize money, career titles and career wins enter, players like Brunson, Hellmuth, Matusow etc can now get more air time than before, and these are the players that they should focus on for the audience, also, any big winners should be hammed up to the crowd, it worked for Ferguson when he won the WSOP.
Find Something Not Done Before On Poker TV – High Stakes Poker was a big example of this, when every other poker show was about tournaments, they chose to work on cash games, and it instantly brought entertaining hands. Who can forget Greenstein’s AA against Farha’s KK?
It brought the 7-2 rule, which saw Hellmuth bluff Matusow off of K-K
and who can forget, the face of Dwan:
No no that one.
There we go.
It went with something different, the EPL have to do the same. How? Well the WPT only shows Hold’em tournaments, and the WSOP while showing other formats, usually make the final table Hold’em because it’s “TV-friendly”, it might be an idea to try and show new games on the final table, if a player can get into Hold’em, then why not Stud, or Draw games, how about a mixed game tournament where the final table is still mixed.
A Good Commentary Team – When High Stakes Poker fired Gabe Kaplan and AJ Benza, the showed was criticised by viewers. They replaced them with Norm MacDonald and Kara Scott, a man who was known for having more flop shows in his career than successes, and a woman who was known for her commentary work, showing up for thirty seconds on a player interview segment which had worked well previously without her. The WSOP have Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, the WPT have Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten, one serious play-by-play announcer and one joker for entertainment, either or both having some knowledge and experience of the big poker games played. The same is happening with webcasts, players like Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and Oliver Busquets show that it is much easier to turn an entertaining poker player into a play-by-play announcer, then it is to turn an entertainer into a poker-player. Find a good combination, and stick with them.
It sounds familiar all this, because it is. There was nothing wrong with the foundation of these poker shows. The WPT has kept solid TV ratings since it’s inception and is the show that has stayed closest to it’s original programming. It hasn’t tried to show live coverage without hole cards on television, it hasn’t tried to alter the buy-ins so that a bajillion amateur “who-are-theys” enter the field, they do whats best for television. They just made small tweaks, altered the setting a little and added some female cheerleaders to gawk at (the majority of poker viewers are male, so it isn’t sexist, just common sense.)
The same needs to be done with the EPL and poker television in general. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just keep it fresh.