The World Series of Poker has always made for great television. A hybrid of reality TV and the pinnacle of sport, we remain glued to our televisions as the turn of a card changes lives time and time again. ESPN's obvious dedication to the product serves as testimony to that, and the ratings and profitability that dedication alludes to serves as similar testimony to the viewer's concurrence.
Since WSOP shifted from 2002's single-episode to 2003's multi-episode format, the viewer has been learning and the fan base growing. Adjustments have been made in the form of the November Nine, live streaming and increasing sophistication in the commentary, but in the world of television, the viewer needs to constantly be offered something new in order to keep programming from getting repetitive. Maybe that's why in 2011, we'll be seeing the biggest, boldest steps we've seen in any single-season transition to increase and improve ESPN's coverage of the biggest poker tournament in the world.
Doug White is the senior director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN and as such, a pretty big deal when it comes to what you end up seeing on ESPN and its affiliates. If you're a poker fan, you should be glad that's the case.
"Ever since I've been involved with poker we've been trying to do things to expand the sport," White said. "You always have that debate about whether it's a sport and my mentality was that it's a sport just like any other sport we cover, and we want to treat it as such. My mission has been to continually expand the coverage. I was fortunate to come up at a time when the final table was moved to early November and [the success of the November Nine] signaled to me that there are things that could be done outside the conventional poker wisdom. I took that cue to mean anything is possible. Since then, we've been trying to engage fans in any way possible."
This year, that all seems to be coming to fruition. White and ESPN, working with WSOP vice president Ty Stewart and new WSOP producers Poker PROductions, have implemented changes to WSOP coverage that will make the main event rival the respective finales of the major team sports.
The changes are anything but simple, but aim to provide a fresh new look at the game's biggest event.
Live coverage of the WSOP main event on ESPN and ESPN2
For the first time, the WSOP will be broadcast live with a 30-minute delay on ESPN (2 hours) and ESPN2 (36 hours) with hole cards after the flop. The WSOP and ESPN worked with the Players Advisory Council and the Nevada Gaming Commission to ensure a fair structure for players that at the same time would allow the viewer to get a far more extensive look at the main event on their televisions. A few things to know:
• The two ESPN hours will be on Day 8, during prime time, likely as the November Nine bubble looms.
• Commentary will include both Lon McEachern and experienced poker voice David Tuchman teaming up with one professional player and doing shift work. Pro names that have been heard include Phil Hellmuth, Olivier Busquet, Antonio Esfandiari, Brandon Adams and Bart Hanson, with the final selection boiling down in part to who does well in the main event.
• TV tables will be chosen based on perceived viewer interest.
Anytime there's live poker coverage on ESPN or ESPN2, ESPN3 will be part of the game. However, in addition, ESPN3 will feature a live stream with a five-minute delay coming to you from inside the Rio. From Day 3 to Day 8, more than 60 hours of live footage will be shown, which will include the following:
• No hole cards.
• A sporting event feel with full screen graphics, replays et al.
• Professional players serving as on-air talent. Names that have been heard for this include those that were mentioned above, as well as Haralabos Voulgaris and Phil Galfond. While it's generally been suggested that no hole cards means a show might appeal to only a hard-core audience, the professionals have been recruited to help bring the viewer into their mindset. Analysis from those named and others should prove a strong learning tool for those who are interested in getting better at poker.
The ESPN standard: WSOP edited episodes
Yes, Tuesday night will still be poker night with the two-hour episodes you've come to expect, but there will be changes. A few things to know and look for:
• Lon and Norman Chad are back.
• The set is completely changed. The Poker Arena at the Rio is being hailed broadly as an evolution on TV table culture and environment.
• While the total number of hours will be the same, coverage will start on Day 3 instead of Day 1. Gone are the two-hour episodes of one star player sitting center stage for two hours amidst the slow play of Day 1. Instead, we'll better be able to follow the storylines that will make the real difference in the telling of this tournament's story. So, instead of two hours of Day 3 coverage, you'll see four to six hours. This in turn will allow a departure from "all-in preflop television" and allow for deeper analysis of the hands you'll see.
• Poker professional Kara Scott will serve as the show's first sideline reporter, getting analysis and reaction from the floor as the need arises.
• Less emphasis on profile features. They'll still be a part of the show, but there will be fewer of them. Those viewers will see will delve deeper into the subject's lives. Producers will have been dispatched to shoot them in their homes, giving the viewer a better understanding of who the featured players are in their everyday lives.
• Replacing some of that footage will be a new feature, "Pro Analysis," in which professional players will give analysis of a hand. Some of the names being heard on this are Phil Galfond, Brandon Adams and Tom Dwan.
• Former FBI agent Joe Navarro will do one feature per episode on tells, offering analysis on the body language of some of poker's biggest names.
• An increased overall emphasis on educating the viewer. "We learned through our back and forth with ESPN that people watch because they want to learn," said Poker PROductions' Dan Gati. "We want the viewer to learn something from the analysis from the pros and Joe Navarro."
"I think that it's going to be a transcendent moment for poker," said Harrah's VP Stewart. "Having that kind of coverage on an everyday basis will give validation to poker in a way we may never have seen. We're seeing the WSOP as a premier sports property. It's stunning to me. With the November Nine, we got a lot of buzz, but this is so much bigger than that change. To have every Tuesday night on the Worldwide Leader and that kind of live events coverage, we have a better platform than many of the big leagues and mainstream sports. We now have a TV footprint that would make many of the big guys jealous."
It's a lot of change to digest, at times a scary thing when that change is coming to an entity you cherish. For people with poker interests, though, in what's otherwise been a pretty rough year, this all seems like really, really good news for the continued growth of both the game and your viewing enjoyment of it. The feeling here is that while WSOP has always been great television, there was more that could be done with it. That's finally happening, to the viewer's benefit.
You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.