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Online Poker News Archives - May 16, 2005

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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 his hand

BYLINE: Owen Gibson

BODY:
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 TV.

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 involvement.

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 chips.

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 Den.

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 one example.

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 this aim.

"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," he says.

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," he says.

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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