TV gambles on poker and wins big

From Associated Press

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 recently 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 Tuesday.

"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, chief executive 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.

However, 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 $350,000 to $400,000 per episode. Instead of three or four cameras, he uses as many as 16, enabling viewers to see every player's hands.

"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."

Lipscomb persuaded the Travel Channel to take a chance on a 13-episode series, and it started in March. The tournaments routinely draw two to three times the audience of the channel's typical prime-time fare.

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