Most of these changes seem to be positive. They will undoubtedly address some real problems with the broadcast over the past few years. However, there’s still one glaring issue that needs to be addressed.
It’s not a question of character, it’s a question of characters.
The WSOP Main Event goes live on ESPN
Essentially, Poker Central came in and acquired the global television and digital media rights to the WSOP. Poker Central also came to an agreement with ESPN that will see the WSOP’s longstanding broadcast partner show nearly live coverage of the WSOP Main Event on ESPN and ESPN2 for anywhere from two to four hours a day throughout the first eight days of play.
Poker Central will then presumably step in with extended coverage on those days, streaming it on its own digital distribution channels.
November Nine concept ends
By the time they’re through all of that, a final table of nine will be set. But instead of taking off until the fall and returning to the Nevada casino to play out the final table months later, like they have since 2008, the concept of the November Nine has been thrown out the window.
Starting this year, players will take just two days off to prepare for the final table. ESPN2 will run a final table preview show on the second of those two days. Live coverage will then resume for three days, playing from nine to six, six to three, and then three until a champion is crowned.
This is obviously a great move. The almost four-month break created by the November Nine was meant to promote the players. Ideally, they would secure lucrative sponsorship deals. Plus, it would give the TV-watching public a chance to get to know who would be playing for millions of dollars at the Main Event final table. Unfortunately, none of this ever really came to fruition.
WSOP needed to change things up
Poker’s popularity as a TV product only waned since the introduction of the November Nine. The original goals of the break never really materialized.
Sure, it gave ESPN a chance to fit its coverage of the lead-up to the final table into edited episodes. But that never really gave them the ratings boost they’d hoped for. Plus, with all the live press coverage of the Main Event throughout the summer, those interested in the November Nine were getting all the information they could handle already.
In the end, it was simply time to give up on the whole idea. Most seem glad they have.
When there’s this much money and a world title on the line, poker seems to work as a live broadcast. This move towards making the Main Event live on ESPN and Poker Central all the way down until a champion is crowned appears to be a good one. But there is one more issue broadcasters really need to address.
441 Productions put character before cards
If you’re a fan of poker on TV, there’s a good chance your love affair with the game started with the 2003 WSOP Main Event. Of course, Chris Moneymaker‘s inconceivable fairy tale did a lot to draw viewers in. However, there was something more going on.
Executive Producer Matt Maranz and the team at 441 Productions responsible for putting those shows together had an uncanny way of getting to the real story. The true story behind a lot of the characters on the WSOP Main Event broadcast.
This was definitely evident in 2003, as well as subsequent years, where we were introduced to new characters each time around and found a real rooting interest in the spectacle.
They gave the audience more than just a view of the game. They gave them some real insight into the people playing it. As much as the game itself provided drama that gripped viewers, the introduction to the cast of characters involved gave the audience people to root for, or even root against.
Basically, 441 Productions tapped into the poker’s real human element. In the end, it helped grow the game to heights well beyond what poker itself ever could have done on its own.
Poker is about people
POKER PROductions and Executive Producer Mori Eskandani took over in 2011. The broadcast hasn’t been the same since.
There’s little doubt the folks at POKER PROductions know poker. They also have extensive experience producing poker on TV. This is the same group that produced hit poker shows like NBC’s Poker After Dark and GSN’s High Stakes Poker. They know what they’re doing.
However, POKER PROductions has long stood by the idea that the reason people watch poker on TV is to learn the game. As such, the ESPN broadcast has moved away from the gripping, character driven drama it was under 441, into more of an instructional video featuring long-time commentators Norman Chad and Lon McEachern as comic relief.
People argue that this latest generation of poker players lacks the characters that dominated the game in the early part of poker’s boom. This may be true, but the viewing audience has been robbed of the chance to judge that for themselves. Mostly because the producers of the game’s top-rated television program have shifted the focus of its broadcast from the players to the game itself.
It’s a question of characters
They’ve dumped the ultimately failed idea of the November Nine. They are trying to make the WSOP Main Event an inherently more exciting live broadcast.
Now, if they can just find a way to get back to focusing on the characters involved. Make the broadcast more about the people playing poker than just poker itself, and they may really have something. Something that will make the WSOP on ESPN, and now Poker Central as well, must-see TV once again.