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U.S. networks bet on comeback for TV poker

By Sue Zeidler

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ten years ago, poker shows proliferated on TV and then faded but with several states and federal legislators moving to legalize the game online, some networks are betting that TV poker is back.

"Online poker will introduce a lot of new people to the game and I think that will bring another big wave to television," said Jamie Horowitz, vice president original programming and production for Walt Disney's ESPN.

ESPN televises the popular World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournament, currently taking place in Las Vegas through July 6. ESPN will air 26 segments on WSOP starting on July 23.

On Wednesday, CBS's Showtime will air for the first time on TV a 2009 documentary called "All In - The Poker Movie," about how poker has come to be part of the mainstream culture.

Hollywood agents, TV executives, poker and gaming executives have been meeting to discuss and pitch new poker programs, from reality shows about female tournament players, to shows potentially featuring new online gaming companies.

Others caution, however, that a resurgence in poker TV needs more than the three states, Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey, that have passed online gambling laws to kickstart the game on TV again.

"Although online gambling may only have momentum in three states right now, it could be a great lead-in for programming," said Alec Driscoll, director of gaming development for American Casino and Entertainment Properties LLC.

Off-shore poker websites such as PokerStars were the forces behind the poker TV boom, starting around 2003, serving as on-air sponsors and buying air time for their own shows.

But that all changed on April 15, 2011, known in the gaming industry as "Black Friday," when the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the founders of these sites on charges of bank fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling offenses.

The sites were closed to U.S. online players, sending shockwaves through the poker world and the TV industry.

Networks slashed shows. But then the DOJ in late 2011 clarified its stance on the Wire Act, enabling states to legalize online gambling.

CASINOS AND NETWORKS EXPECT BIGGER MARKET

Nevada was the first state to go live in late April, while others like New Jersey and Delaware are preparing to start online poker in coming months. Several others are considering similar laws, while lawmakers in Congress are also working on legislation to allow online poker gambling across the United States, giving casinos and TV networks a bigger market.

Larry Gerbrandt, principal of Media Valuation Partners, said the last poker TV boom helped offshore online poker sites to drive viewers to their sites. Gerbrandt said it will take similar investment by fledgling online gaming companies to fuel television, although he believes poker show ratings are rising.

Comcast's NBC Universal's E! Network is developing a new reality show called "Queens are Wild" that follows four top female poker players who room together as they travel the world and compete to win millions.

Ben Spector, of Los Angeles-based Tollin Productions, said he was approached by top Hollywood agency CAA to pitch the reality show on female poker players to networks.

Taiwanese-born professional poker player Maria Ho, who has accrued more than $1 million in tournament earnings, is one of the women featured. Ho is no stranger to TV and has appeared on "The Amazing Race" and "American Idol" and is a commentator on the "Heartland Poker Tour" syndicated TV series.

"When I got into poker, I didn't see myself going down the TV path," Ho said. She gave up plans to go to graduate school to play poker. "It's been the ride of my life."

Gary Quinn, vice president, programming, NBC Sports Group, said the unit is in discussions about different poker projects. It airs the "National Heads Up Poker Championship" and brought back "Poker After Dark" in 2012 after withdrawing it a few years earlier.

New online gaming companies are mulling TV opportunities. Station Casino Inc's Ultimate Gaming, the first company to take online bets in the U.S. in Nevada last April 30, is in discussions with networks.

"We are speaking with NBC and Fox and several other networks to see what the appetite is for the category over the next 24 months," said Joe Versaci, Ultimate Gaming's chief marketing officer.

Versaci and others are watching California closely because of its size and entertainment footprint. "What happens in California in late 2014 and 2105 will be key, not only because it's the epicenter of where TV is produced, but because it's like a country itself and can support a large poker market," he said.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Grant McCool)

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