The WSOP Ratings Conundrum And Future of Televised Poker

Bristol, we have a problem.

2011 WSOP produced shows on ESPN pulled record low numbers. But the live shows exceeded everyone’s expectations and proved that poker is a viable real-time viewing product.

And that, friends, is what we like to call a conundrum.

Where will the ever-evolving WSOP broadcast product go from here? Where should it go? And what will it mean for the future of poker on TV?

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While the state of television poker in general is in flux, for the purposes of this feature, we’re going to mostly focus on the WSOP. It’s the biggest brand. It sets the tone for the rest of the industry.

Now typically, when you see numbers like .39 and .41, you think to yourself, “Somebody has gotta start taking Racener’s keys from him.” Unfortunately in this case, those are some of the ratings the 2011 WSOP Main Event has clocked on ESPN during its run leading up to its live November 9 broadcast.

However, it’s not just the ESPN WSOP non-live broadcast that’s suffering. The state of poker on TV–particularly in the United States–has been rocked by Black Friday. As we broke earlier, NBC axed its National Heads-Up Poker Championship (for now, at least). According to sources, Epic Poker pulled a .5 rating on CBS. That’s not good. For a comparison Poker After Dark frequently garnered a better rating than that and it aired after 2am. PokerStars has yanked The Big Game off its production docket. And of course, all of the Full Tilt time-buys are gone.

From 2004-2011, poker on TV was inescapable. However, despite steadily declining ratings across the board, the market was flooded with more and more content. The WSOP was emblematic of that trend, as total hours of content increased even though ratings had fallen. Here’s a look at historical ratings for WSOP broadcasts on ESPN from 2004 – 2011.

WSOP ratings dropped over 25% in 2011.

As you can see, the WSOP pulled solid ratings (over a 1.0) for years, then dropped in 2007, rebounded during the Dennis Phillips-Phil Ivey-Darvin Moon-built-in-buzz-years, dropped again in 2010, and dropped off by about 25% in 2011.

While the steep fall-off for produced shows this year (around 25%) isn’t as bad as I7AXA’s profits after capturing second in the Sunday Millions, it’s still not a good sign.

While we don’t believe the drop in numbers has anything to do with the strength of the World Series of Poker brand — to the contrary, the 2011 WSOP pulled in record attendance and prize pool numbers despite starting just weeks after The Events of 4/15(TM) — the fall-off in numbers we believe is a harbinger of things to come for packaged poker programming.

Obviously, 2004 was a high-water mark for the WSOP and poker programming in general. Poker was at its trendiest. It was new. It was fresh. Plus, there wasn’t a lot of competition syphoning off viewers. All that was on the air were the WSOP, WPT (which was the Travel Channel’s top rated show ever), and Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown.

WSOP ratings fell in 2005, to be expected, and then treaded water for a few years. The fact that ratings remained steady was impressive considering the sheer volume of ESPN re-airs (once totaling approximately 600 hours per year and more recently leveling off at 300 hours), as well as the lack of compelling Main Event winners (Jerry Yang and Peter Eastgate anyone?).

And when all was said and done, it didn’t matter that ratings were stagnant because the show was exponentially more profitable for ESPN in 2010 than it was in 2004. ESPN is rumored to have made around $50M off poker content in recent years.

Also troubling for the WSOP, years like 2008 and 2009 saw ratings climb as the broadcast moved closer to the November Nine final table. This year saw the opposite. Ratings fell week-by-week (although there was a slight up-tick in the final week leading up to the November Nine). October broadcasts pulled .39, .41, and .45 ratings, which are the lowest ever for the Main Event on ESPN.

Yet, the live WSOP shows crushed, comparatively. Consider this:

The WSOP’s Saturday, July 16th and Sunday November 6th live shows maintained a .5 rating on ESPN2 (or the same that Epic Poker had on CBS). The show realized TRIPLE DIGIT increases in viewership in key demos, including the male 18-34 category, where it saw a 125% increase over alternate live ESPN2 programming.

The take-away here is simple: the public embraced live poker programming, and turned its back on produced shows.

However, the produced fall-out may not be a bad thing given how strongly the live show performed in key demographic areas. Caesars & WSOP VP Ty Stewart, the man most really credit with the growth of the WSOP over the past seven years, notes:

The gross rating is by far the most important metric.  If you want to bring in new advertisers, you need younger demos.  Younger demos who traditionally go to twitter and other instant mediums for their information.  Younger demos who are more advanced in their understanding of the game.

Younger demos clearly embraced the live shows. But will that eventually trickle over back to the produced shows? It’s too early to tell, but early indicators are “no.”

WSOP Produced Ratings Drop

So what caused the precipitous drop in produced show ratings? Here’s our take.

1. The live broadcast. Seems obvious, right? The live WSOP broadcast pulled nearly the same rating–or even exceeded the numbers of the produced show some weeks. So it’s very fair to assume that is going to syphon off viewers.

By the time the produced shows hit the air, hardcore poker fans already watched the action and saw what they wanted to see. They know why favorites like Jean-Robert Bellande and Erick Lindgren were eliminated. They’ve seen the hands. They’ve experienced the personalities involved. And they’re not coming back to watch something which is essentially a highlight reel of what they already saw live.

Ty Stewart somewhat echoes the thought of the produced shows being almost like rerun/highlight show, but urges to take a broader view of the numbers:

It’s apples and oranges.  In 2011, you have to look at Tuesday night ratings as the first re-run. It’s important to note that when you combine the rating points between 40 hours of live coverage in the summer on ESPN2, plus the [produced] Tuesday nights [on ESPN], we’re pulling more cumulative impressions than at any time in recent years.

2. No Longer Top of Mind: The Black Friday Hangover. In general, Black Friday had this effect on the industry.

There is a collective hangover from Black Friday. The mass majority of poker enthusiasts are recreational. That activity was taken away from them (online, at least). Estimates vary, but it’s a reasonable assumption that at least 2M people were playing online poker in the U.S. Now they’re not. So poker just isn’t top-of-mind for U.S. viewers right now. That has an undeniable trickle-down impact on broadcasts like the WSOP.

3. Over-Saturation of Content. Even without the Black Friday Hangover, a ratings decline may have been inevitable this year due to the long-term effects of over-saturation.

For an example of this, look no further than American Idol. When Idol first hit (2002), it had virtually no competition (like the WSOP in 2003, which only had the WPT). Seasons 2-5 of Idol were like the 2004 WSOP, relatively massive ratings and a cultural juggernaut. Over the past year, leading into 4/15, the WSOP was at a phase that Idol is facing now: increased competition which is stealing away viewers (Idol has X-FactorAmerica’s Got Talent, The Sing-Off, The Voice, and other knock-offs like the WSOP had to compete with the World Poker Tour, NBC National Heads-Up Poker ChampionshipPoker After Dark, The Big Game, PokerStars Million Dollar Challenge, Double’s Poker Championship, High Stakes Poker, Epic Poker, and more).

Both Idol and the WSOP hit a saturation point where viewers were presented with generally the same talent, the exact same product (i.e. singing vs. playing poker), and not a lot of new ways to present said product. The X-Factor should be pulling in Idol-esque ratings–it’s got recognizable, familiar faces (Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul) and overall better singing talent. But the market has too many other options, and the show is pulling in around 13M weekly viewers (not a flop by any means, but not the gaudy 20M-ish that Idol brings in). The X-Factor is basically singing competition’s version of Epic Poker, except with 100% more profits and 12,998,000 more viewers.

Along with the increased competition, the WSOP broadcasts, and in particular the Main Event, savaged itself some through its own over-exposure.

From 2004 through 2009, WSOP broadcast hours were filled by up to 10 total events (usually the major preliminary events plus the Main Event). However, this wasn’t a cost-effective means to produce the show, as it required then production partner 441 to keep staff at the WSOP for the duration of its six-week run.

The strategic/economic decision was then made to focus more hours on the Main Event, which was always the highest rated of the tournaments each year anyway. However, in doing so, it forced increased focus on meaningless play and non-existent storylines to fill the hours (“And now, the second half of Day 5! Can Cuong Nguyen keep his chip lead? Or will Manoj Viswanathan overtake him?”).

If you ever go back and watch the 2003 and 2004 Main Event broadcasts, 441 did a brilliant job in their tightly-wound storytelling. There was little fluff. Characters were developed. The key hands, storylines and personalities were all covered.

By 2010, with so much focus on the Main Event, the overall product got diminished. The storytelling wasn’t tight because it couldn’t be. And unfortunately, few new stars emerged– or were made.

There’s barely a show on TV that wouldn’t have the same results either. Look at the show 24. Each year it had stretches of brilliance sandwiched in between a number of filler episodes that clearly showed the producers ran out of ideas.

There’s also a reason why most reality shows are only 13 episodes/hours. Or why nobody watches baseball with its 162 game seasons any more. Or why everyone watches all the NFL, with its every-game-matters-because-there-are-only-16-of-them schedule.

Had ESPN cut down on the Main Event hours, watching the Main Event produced shows would’ve mattered more.

4. No New Stars. Building on a sentence in the previous point, making matters worse, poker as an industry has done a miserable job over the past few years manufacturing new stars.

All of the big names in 2004 are still the big names in 2011.

Compounding this problem, with the exceptions of Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Scotty Nguyen, Doyle Brunson and Annie Duke, most of poker’s major stars have done little to go out and promote themselves and the sport (we’re looking at you, Phil Ivey). Granted, that’s why many poker players became poker players: they don’t have to answer to anyone, and they can be their own boss. That doesn’t mean its good for the growth of the game though.

Sports needs stars to carry ratings. Tiger Woods does it for golf. Brett Favre did it for football. Very few people do it for poker. And given the size of the fields in most events, we need significantly more stars than other sports for fans to get behind it and care about watching.

5. This Year’s Broadcasts Are Boring. Finally, this year’s packaged broadcasts–handled for the first time by Poker PROductions– just aren’t compelling to watch. While we’re in the minority in saying that the set/broadcast itself looks great, the overall industry consensus is that the shows offer very little compelling reasons to watch.

There are no storylines. It’s all poker hands. There are no interesting segments. It’s just blah.

Take in all of the factors we mentioned in the previous points, mix it with a boring broadcast, and you have a recipe for declining ratings.

LIVE and Let LIVE

So the produced shows dropped off this year. Why did the live shows work so well?

First, there was a newness to the live show. People either thoroughly reject or embrace the new, and in this case, live poker was embraced.

What’s interesting is that runs contrary to what most people in the industry thought about the potential of live poker on TV. The general consensus was that airing live poker would be too boring. But with live shows leading up to the final broadcast on Tuesday averaging a .5, and the final broadcast holding over a 1.0 rating, not only was the concept embraced, but it actually built a following.

Airing so much live content this year was a grand experiment, and it looks to have worked for ESPN and the WSOP. Says Ty Stewart:

ESPN isn’t obsessed with two-hour ratings blocks on one platform.  The WSOP is the #1 most time-shifted program on their air and a staple of their programming calendar all year long. They take a holistic approach to maximize the value of their content  – and this year that meant a grand experiment of over 50 hours of new programming.  Thank God for ESPN and their belief in poker and our event.

Secondly, where we felt Poker PROductions failed in the packaged shows–they did extremely well with the live broadcasts. The commentary was fantastic. The lives shows were produced in a way that felt more important–and polished–than the packaged shows.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The WSOP is tied into a broadcast contract with ESPN through 2017. They’re required to show 32 hours of original programming each year. They greatly exceeded their contractual obligation in total original hours aired this year.

Currently, it appears as if ESPN will have both packaged and live shows again in 2012. But how those hours are divided is important–and remains to be seen.

What needs to be done to fix the produced shows, and build on the live broadcasts? Here are our recommendations:

1. More Live. Live programming is cheaper to produce. The ratings difference between the live and packaged shows aren’t that drastic (and is some cases, live outdrew produced). As we mentioned earlier, ESPN made about $50M annually on poker content pre-Black Friday. This year? They’re rumored to be taking a bath to the tune of $5M. Sheer economics may dictate a transition to more live, which is fine, because the live broadcasts frankly are more compelling.

Plus–if you’re going to be taken seriously as a mainstream sport, you HAVE to be live. Since live has proven viable, we believe the public appetite will move to expect real-time broadcasts as the standard. Anything else will eventually be considered unacceptable.

2. Less Main. Sometime, less is more. A confined and retracted broadcast forces tighter storytelling. It worked in 2003 and 2004. It would work just as well today.

3. More Ground Support. One quick fix to the lagging produced shows would to be to invest in more producers on the ground — and work closely with the poker media tirelessly covering all of the angles — to unearth more human interest stories. That should move the broadcasts closer to the mainstream again, as opposed to the more “let’s get 2+2 on our side with lots of stats and analysis!” movement taken by everyone in recent years. Or, if you’re attracting a younger demo and need to highlight younger stars, more producers / help working to find the few and far between interesting ones will only help the cause.

Conclusions

Ultimately, we see the live poker programming as the future of the industry.

Live poker has found an audience on ESPN2. It found an audience on ESPN. It’s even finding an audience via web stream for WPT final tables. People who love poker are willing to invest their time to watch it live, so long as at some point they get to see the hole cards.

So the ratings for live poker programming are there. And the economics make sense. While the WSOP (and to a lesser degree, WPT) has had success in pulling in mainstream advertisers, nobody else has. PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker propped up the industry in that regard. Since there is no more big dollar online operator advertising support–and since live production is cheaper–broadcasts will simply be forced to a more live model.

We don’t see any change in legislation in the U.S. regarding online poker necessarily bringing back pre-produced poker on TV either. Once poker is legalized in the U.S., we believe there is little chance publicly traded entities that will be operating poker rooms–such as Caesars Interactive or MGM–will spend the kind of money Stars and Tilt did on time-buys. We’re not saying that time-buys will never reappear, but they won’t at any level like we saw from 2005-2011.

And as we inch closer and closer to interactive/Internet television, you’ll see poker become even more niche, finding its legs online as opposed to traditional broadcast channels. The hardcore fans can get their fix that way, and companies trying to reach those hardcore fans can produce live content in a much more inexpensive manner–while being able to directly market to them (and potentially acquire them as customers) online.

By going more live, poker fans may get more compelling content, poker advertisers may get a more targeted (and younger) audience, and poker as a game becomes more relevant as a “mainstream” sport.

Ship it.

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  1. Thanks good and informative article indeed . It helps me a lot to enhance my knowledge, I really like the way the writer presentation.

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