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Copyright 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited
The Guardian (London) - Final Edition
May 16, 2005
HEADLINE: Media: New media: Chips with everything:
Challenge TV is gambling on the poker craze to boost its ratings,
with new shows, a dedicated channel and online services too. cshows
BYLINE: Owen Gibson
Two years ago, most people probably thought Texas
Hold 'Em was some kind of criminal activity in the deep south.
Since then, watching and playing
poker has become popular with audiences who would not previously
have been seen dead gambling, helped in no small part by Challenge
The digital channel, hitherto known for low-budget updates of
classic gameshows and some nifty interactive applications, has
become the home of televised poker and has dramatically boosted
viewing figures as a result. Part of the stable owned by Telewest's
content division Flextech, it was ahead of the curve in helping
to popularise the game through innovative coverage and celebrity
In tandem with the growing popularity of online poker, which
has opened up the gaming tables to those previously too intimidated
to play, it has taken poker mainstream. Since October 2003, Challenge
TV controller Jonathan Webb has commissioned more than 200 hours
of televised poker. He is clearly a man who does not believe the
adage about separating business and pleasure, and will talk at
length of his passion for the game.
"I'm a firm believer that what makes a good programme director
is passion and things you really believe in and I've always been
a poker nut," he explains, feeling a little jaded, having
spent the previous night at the suitably geezer-ish Leyton Orient
Player of the Year awards, where he paid £1,900 for a dartboard
signed by Phil "The Power" Taylor in a charity auction.
A fan of Channel 4's Late Night Poker, which ran for four years
from 1998 and attracted a devoted cult following thanks to the
innovation of filming from beneath a glass table so that viewers
could tell who was bluffing, he was convinced that the game could
reach a wider audience.
"I'd been looking for a way to make it more Challenge, soften
it up and broaden the interest," he recalls of the genesis
of Celebrity Poker. "Within weeks it was obvious that it
was going to be the biggest thing we'd ever done. We couldn't
make them fast enough." The programme continues to be the
channel's biggest draw, with past highlights including comedian
Johnny Vegas throwing a huge wobbly when he ran out of luck and
Now, with players betting millions every day in online
poker halls, other broadcasters are looking again at the game.
C4 will bring back Late Night Poker this summer, Five is close
to commissioning a series and, despite the chastening belly flop
of Celebrity Wrestling, ITV is also believed to be interested
in a show mixing cards and celebrities. Given all that, says Webb,
it's time for Challenge to raise the stakes.
He recently launched a devoted poker strand, Player, that broadcasts
from 10pm every night. If it is a success, Flextech plans to spin
it off into a new channel. The idea, he says, is to tap into poker's
"rich seam of iconography".
"That wasn't appropriate alongside the rest of Challenge's
content. It's doing phenomenally well. It's where all our commissioning
money is going. The big question for me is where we could take
it, because everybody's at it," he says.
To do so, he commissioned some extensive research to find out
what it was about the game that appealed.
"Part of it is retro cool, the Rat Pack. But it's more about
poker as a metaphor for life and the psychological battles that
we play and the mind games sitting around the table. That's the
thing that connects old and young, men and women, that's the thing
that's opened up the whole poker genre," says Webb.
Player will be about more than televised tournaments. It will
also screen films such as Casino, and reality shows such as Vegas
Virgins, in which 10 novices hit gambling's global mecca, alongside
the traditional tournament format "with a twist".
"We've been very careful to position everything we've done
in the past as a global melting pot. We've steered away from the
whole East End gangster thing but now is the time to do something
that's absolutely Lock Stock," he says of new show Poker
Pitting online qualifiers against professionals, it will be the
first televised poker game to feature real stacks of money lying
on the table and will take place in a gritty, back-alley location,
complete with gym equipment, dripping pipes and bare bulbs.
Webb, who also oversees Flextech's teen channel Trouble and recently
added lads' entertainment channel Bravo to his portfolio, is convinced
that poker has plenty of mileage in it yet.
"Everyone gets bored, you have to keep evolving. If you
look at sport, as it matures it just goes in a slightly different
way. You want to get to know the personalities and by Christ there
are some personalities in poker," he says, pointing to Dave
"Devilfish' Elliot, a former bricklayer from Hull, as just
The holy grail for all the broadcasters betting big on poker
is the possibility of making money from interactive services.
Sky's own betting arm has started bringing in significant revenues
since it launched interactive casino Sky Vegas and Webb reveals
that Challenge has bigger plans for the red button.
He says that an interactive service allowing viewers to play
along with tournaments on-screen will launch "this year",
which would remain within the law as long as it was a fixed odds
game. Once the much-disputed gambling bill makes its way onto
the statute book, there will be even greater opportunities.
Jason George, the former chief executive of Victoria Real, the
company that developed Big Brother's interactive service, was
brought on board by Flextech earlier this year to help achieve
"The big question is how far we can push this market. There's
something like 100,000 regular players in the UK and we've got
four and half million poker viewers and one and a half million
hardcore poker viewers. So the market is potentially huge,"
says Webb. Online, the channel will also seek to become a trusted
friend to players and develop the definitive comparison site for
the myriad online poker services.
Meanwhile, Webb has also got his hands full relaunching Bravo,
a channel that has been through more incarnations than Doctor
Who. He is reluctant to give too much away before his plans are
signed off by Flextech chief Lisa Opie but believes there is a
big opportunity for a more intelligent, glossy entertainment channel
aimed at men.
"We have massive ambitions. What I am interested in is manhood
and men's place in the world. If you look at the stats, we're
pretty screwed up actually. TV's pretty female-centric and I'm
really interested to explore what it means to be a bloke in Britain
in 2005. Expect it to be funnier and smarter and knowing,"
After more than a decade in multichannel TV, during which time
he also launched Living and had a spell as Flextech marketing
director, he believes that we're on the cusp of some major changes.
Video-on-demand, which Telewest's broadband division has already
launched in trial form, and the growing popularity of Freeview
offer his channels a chance to break into the mainstream.
"Both Bravo and Living will be huge entertainment channels
in their own right and are sitting in a great place. Trouble and
Challenge are brilliantly placed to be navigator brands - youth
entertainment any time, anywhere or casino entertainment any time,
any where - they'll become genuine multi-platform brands,"
In the meantime, he insists that he is not bluffing when he predicts
that poker will become part of British life in the same way as
it has become a mainstream leisure pursuit in the US.
"If you look at how it's developed in the States, it took
five or six years for the craze to start hitting television. I
think as the gambling bill starts evolving here, it will become
one of Britain's pastimes, whether that's at a super-casino or
your friends coming round to your flat on a Tuesday evening."
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