Poker shows face axe at GSN channel

Mon Jun 9, 2008 1:01am EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - How often does a network cancel its highest-rated show?

Fearful poker fans are betting cable channel GSN (formerly known as Game Show Network) is running out of time to renew two of its most popular series, "High Stakes Poker" and "World Poker Tour."

Typically by this time of year, the shows would be in production on their next seasons. But since the exit of president and CEO Rich Cronin last year and installation of former Universal Television group head David Goldhill, more than a dozen GSN staffers have left the channel and some speculate that the poker shows may be next to get the axe.

The renewal delay has caused poker publications and blogs in recent weeks to declare "High Stakes" dead and "WPT" in jeopardy since both are near the end of their pickup windows. In March, GSN reportedly canceled game show "Lingo," its fourth highest-rated show in the coveted adults 18 to 49 demo.

According to GSN, such reports are premature. Various options are still being weighed, a spokesman said, and no decision has yet been made. The network was supposed to make a call on "WPT" by Saturday, but the network and WPT are expected to release a joint statement Monday to assure shareholders of WPT Enterprises that that the parties are still in talks.

Theories vary about the network's lack of enthusiasm toward the shows. The poker series are too expensive, goes one. Goldhill wants to steer GSN away from his predecessor's interest in the poker genre and toward traditional game shows, goes another.

"High Stakes" commentator Gabe Kaplan, currently playing cards in Las Vegas as the World Series of Poker gets underway, said the fate of the poker shows is the talk of the tables.

"Everybody is surprised and nobody knows why this is happening, really," Kaplan said. "('High Stakes') is all everybody talks about here, because it's the show that all the players watch."

As on Kaplan's show, the stakes are indeed high. Among adults 18 to 49, the one-hour "High Stakes" is GSN's top-rated show (averaging 117,000 viewers in the demo). The recent fourth-season was its best yet, jumping 20% in the demo. The two-hour "WPT" is averaging sixth in its current debut season on the network (111,000).

Among total viewers, the shows are less successful on GSN, a network that tends to skew older: "WPT" ranks seventh (averaging 349,000 viewers) and "High Stakes" is 28th

(306,000).

"WPT" and "High Stakes" are among the few survivors of the early 21st century poker phenomenon that inspired numerous basic cable and broadcast programs, as well as several feature films.

The tournament-based "WPT" helped spearhead the poker boom when it launched on the Travel Channel in 2003. Last year, the show jumped networks to GSN after Travel decided to distance itself from off-brand poker programming.

"High Stakes" was a relative latecomer to the genre, but introduced televised cash games where poker pros risk up to hundreds of thousands per hand of their own money instead of playing in a traditional tournament.

GSN owns the rights to "High Stakes," so it's unclear if producer Poker Prods. would be able to shop the show to other networks. The company also produces NBC's "Poker After Dark," which plans to try out a couple "High Stakes"-style cash games in mid-July.

"These networks took a chance for poker and put it in the mainstream," said Poker Prods. CEO Mori Eskandani. "If they decide with the new CEO and their new direction that poker is not really working, that it has no cross promotional value, then I respect that."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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