Get with the programme

Poker is one of the most exciting spectator sports in the world, so why is TV finding it such a challenge?

April 12, 2005. If you’d switched on your TV for your daily fix of Richard and Judy’s highly-charged sex life, your dubious fetishism would have been rewarded with something much more interesting. For on this day, all the talk at teatime on Channel 4 was poker. Fast forward to the present and Radio 4 is following suit. In a recent episode of The Archers, Alistair Lloyd lost over £8000 when a friendly poker school got serious, and is now on the verge of being sucked into the murky world of online gambling. I think it’s safe to say, poker’s gone mainstream. But if you’ve been tuning in to the multitude of poker-based shows recently, you’ll know that all that glistens is not gold.

Down the tube

With poker as in-yer-face as it is right now, it’s hard to believe that Channel 4 only started screening Late Night Poker in 1999. Even harder to comprehend is that some shows seem to be going backwards, with TV execs blindly jumping on the reality and celebrity bandwagons. Presentable, the production company credited with introducing the glass-topped tables that made poker a TV sensation, is the same outfit that’s just dented the hopes of securing prime-time terrestrial poker coverage with its inappropriately named All Star Poker Challenge. As poker junkies we’ll watch anything with the p-word in the title, but this was just a misjudged mess. With a set Tim Burton would have rejected on the grounds of demented gaucheness, the line-up consisted of largely unheard-of poker novices, squealing with delight whenever an Ace turned up.

The TV masses deserve better, but with stuff like this it’s going to be hard to convince the likes of Boyd Hilton, TV editor of Heat magazine, that poker makes good viewing. ‘From the trailers, I thought it was going to be dire, and I was right. I have no interest in poker programmes whatsoever, and this has done nothing to change my mind,’ wrote Hilton.

And so to Channel Five’s new offering – Showdown. The opening episode immediately fell flat when the contestants, who up till that point had been kept in the dark about the nature of the programme, were told they’d be playing poker in their bid for a piece of £100,000. What, no creepy crawlies to eat? No sun and sex on a paradise island? To say the participants were underwhelmed is an understatement.

But then the full extent of the debacle was revealed – the players were given comedy monikers to help develop their poker personas. So the rock chick who passed some exam once is ‘The Professor’. The northern bloke’s friends say ‘he’s mental… a brilliant character actor’ – arise therefore ‘The Jester’. Throw in ‘The Manipulator’, ‘The Fighter’ and ‘The Wallflower’ and, despite being a laudable attempt to do something different, the whole affair is filed under ‘must do better’.

Committed to the cause

On the cusp of signing a major deal with PartyPoker, Channel Five seems to have made a commitment to the game, having already screened the World Open Poker Championship, with engaging host and well-known player Colin Murray. Channel 4 is fighting back with Late Night Poker Ace. Unfortunately, where the original attracted some of the biggest names in the game, such as Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and The Hendon Mob, the ‘sequel’ aims to find the country’s best amateur from online qualifiers. All well and good but it doesn’t make for scintillating TV. Throw in a few celebs of a decent calibre, add a few top-name pros and you can pad the rest out with unknowns. But unknowns on their own don’t cut it.

So where to go if you want your daily poker fix? This is where The Poker Channel and pokerzone come in, two dedicated poker channels launched earlier this year on the Sky network. In both cases there have been some teething problems, but we’re confident things are changing. With more money secured to fund programmes and growing audience interest, the channels are exuding enthusiasm. Following on from the success of the inaugural British Poker Open earlier this year, The Poker Channel is now screening the first World Speed Poker Open, and has plans to experiment with many other tournament formats.

Hot on The Poker Channel’s heels is pokerzone. Relying on a mix of imports – like the ever-watchable The Poker Show with Jesse May and the slick Full Tilt Poker Tournament – and some hit-and-miss in-house produced shows like Poker Night Live, they too are moving in the right direction. Autumn highlights include Heads Up with Richard Herring, a chat show built around poker, with guests like Andy Black, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor and (of course), James Hewitt.

And thankfully there’s still one show that towers head and shoulders above everyone else. Poker Million, an annual event on Sky Sports is poker, pure and simple, with superb production values and a great commentary team. And yes, we know there’s only one Jesse May, but it’s proof that if you get the basics right, poker’s enough. You don’t need a gimmick – and the high ratings back this up.

Broadcasters take heed – it’s time for fewer contrivances and more respect for the game itself. By all means, create an entertainment extravaganza, but do it well and with people who know what they’re talking about, not some miscast wannabes. Never forget the bottom line, the game itself is king.

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