Poker on Television

Poker has been televised in one form or another since CBS started airing the final table of the World Series of Poker in the late 1970s, but the appeal of these shows was limited, as viewers had no idea what cards the players held, and there were limited options for real-time on-screen graphics, making it difficult to follow the action.

Those limitations changed in 1997 with the advent of the “hole-card camera,” a camera positioned underneath the table that captured the player’s hands. The cameras came about in Europe, and were first used on the British poker show Late Night Poker. But their potential was truly realized after filmmaker Steven Lipscomb produced a documentary on the World Series of Poker for the Discovery Channel, and the network saw substantially higher-than-anticipated viewership.

Using these hole cams as a critical building block, Lipscomb worked with others to develop the World Poker Tour, a televised series of poker tournaments produced independently and adopting a sports-television style. The show premiered in 2003 on the Travel Channel, and was the network’s highest-rated television program to date. ESPN’s World Series of Poker broadcasts fully incorporated hole cams that year, along with improved graphics and a live-sports feel. Coincidentally, that year also saw the Main Event win of amateur player Chris Moneymaker, inaugurating the so-called “poker boom.”

In addition to the regular World Series of Poker broadcasts (hosted by Lon McEachern and Norman Chad) and World Poker Tour shows (hosted by Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten), a number of shows became staples of the televised poker scene. Here are just a few representative examples of shows that most heavily influenced the fictional shows we portray in Quorum:

  • High-Stakes Poker: A GSN show in which invited players participate in a cash game (or “ring game”) rather than in a tournament format, hosted by A.J. Benza and Gabe Kaplan across most of its run.
  • Celebrity Poker Showdown: A Bravo program where poker-playing celebrities (as opposed to professional players) compete for charity, hosted primarily by Dave Foley and Phil Gordon.
  • Learn from the Pros: A Fox Sports Net show sponsored by online poker site Full Tilt Poker and hosted by Chris Rose, in which a guest poker pro (usually Howard Lederer) would provide tips and tricks, illustrating points with scenes from actual hands taken from televised poker tournaments.

Part of the appeal of many of these shows was not just the game play itself, but the array of colorful characters, many of whom would clearly exaggerate their personalities for the camera. As televised poker became more widespread, opportunities for corporate sponsorship abounded — and one’s ability to attract an audience became just as important as (if not more important than) one’s skills at the table. Many of these sponsorships (both of individual players and the shows themselves) came from online poker sites — which naturally led to a seismic shift when the poker landscape changed in 2011…

~William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

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