New York Card playing -- an activity that filled the evening hours before television was invented -- has improbably become one of TV's hottest programming trends.
After less than a year, the "World Poker Tour" is already the Travel Channel's most popular series ever, a status NBC Sports took note of last week in announcing it would air a poker game on Super Bowl Sunday.
Bravo, probably the most trend-conscious cable channel, beat World Poker Tour operators to the punch by putting together the "Celebrity Poker Showdown." The new series begins Dec. 2.
"It's surprisingly entertaining and exciting," said Jeff Gaspin, Bravo's chief executive. "I was really taken aback. As a spectator sport, you wouldn't think that much of it. It's really interesting."
Steve Lipscomb, CEO of the World Poker Tour, started his company in October 2001 with the vision of creating a series of high-stakes games in casinos, much like the professional golf tour.
Lipscomb, a lawyer turned television producer, thought it would make exciting television. But even he admitted that most previous attempts to film card games were so boring they were impossible to watch.
Seeking investment possibilities, he was laughed out of television executive offices.
"There was no interest at all," he said. "Not only no interest, but there was absolute disbelief that it would ever be interesting."
He found other investors, and decided to produce matches for television himself.
Lipscomb spends between $350,000 and $400,000 per episode. Instead of three or four cameras, he uses as much as 16, enabling viewers to see every player's hands. Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten offer play-by-play and commentary.
"There's never a moment when you're not in the middle of the action," Lipscomb said. "I believe it's fascinating to watch someone in the middle of making a million-dollar decision when you can see what he should or shouldn't do."
One unusual draw is that virtually anyone can participate, making the poker matches a version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," he said.
The Travel Channel has repeated the "World Poker Tour" season a third time and ordered a "World Poker Tour Ladies Night" special to air Dec. 10. A new season is in March.
NBC Sports struck a deal with the Travel Channel for its Super Bowl Sunday special.
It will air opposite the endless round of Super Bowl pregame shows (the football game is on CBS), as NBC tries to snare channel-surfers.
NBC, which needs alternative sports programming since it has no basketball, baseball or pro football, may try other poker events if the Super Bowl Sunday show is successful, said Jon Miller, senior vice president of programming for NBC Sports.