Stay informed with the
NEW Casino City Times newsletter!
Best of Gary Trask
ESPN may extend its 'same day coverage' of WSOP final table29 October 2009
Producing an episode for the World Series of Poker on ESPN is no easy task, even when you have several weeks to edit down the more than 15 hours of tape from one day and put it into a neatly wrapped package of two one-hour shows. Trying to do it in less than 24 hours is an even more dubious task, but that's exactly was ESPN was able to do last year with its telecast of the Main Event's final table.
Now, one year after not only pulling off the "groundbreaking same-day coverage" – as ESPN called it – Senior Producer Jamie Horowitz and his team are ready to do it all over again next week in Las Vegas when the second annual November Nine commences at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
Horowitz feels the network is poised to produce a show even better than last year's final table telecast that -- despite being completed just hours before it went on the air -- pulled in outstanding ratings, equal to the amount of viewers ESPN captures for a regular season NBA or Major League Baseball game.
"I'm optimistic we can do it again," Horowitz told Casino City earlier this week. "And when I say optimistic, it's not cautiously optimistic, but extremely optimistic in our ability to produce a show I think poker fans all over the world are going to love."
Horowitz, a 33-year-old Boston native who joined ESPN in 2006 after helping create The National Heads-Up Poker Championship on NBC, is bursting with confidence because the WSOP's revamped final table schedule gives ESPN extra time – and flexibility – to improve on last year. It even gives them the option to go beyond their two-hour window and bump the start of SportsCenter.
The new WSOP final table schedule builds in an extra day in between the time the November Nine goes from nine players to two and when the heads-up portion of the event begins. Last year the final table began on Sunday at 11 a.m. and played until after midnight, with Ivan Demidov and Peter Eastgate making up the final two players. Heads-up play began Monday night at 10 p.m., lasted until around 2:30 a.m. and the final two-hour episode was finally edited and ready to go just before 4 p.m. on Tuesday, only a couple hours before it aired on ESPN.
This year, the final table will begin a day earlier on Saturday, Nov. 7 at 12 p.m. Las Vegas time. Sunday will be an off day – expect, of course, for the ESPN people – and the heads-up play will start Monday night at 10 p.m. The final table episode will air on Tuesday at 6 p.m. Vegas time.
Horowitz said that every extra minute he and his team gets for editing purposes is a bonus. The extra day will also allow ESPN to go over the previously allotted time of two hours for the final table episode, if necessary, something Horowitz is ecstatic about because it means there will likely be more time dedicated to the heads-up portion of the event.
Horowitz called the decision to add an extra day a "triple win" for Harrah's, the players and ESPN. He thinks Harrah's benefits because of all the logistics that are involved in pulling off an event of this magnitude. The players, he says, will also like the extra time because it will enable them to get a full days of rest and come in ready "to play their very best poker."
Last year, the entire final table took 15 hours and 39 minutes, which, at the time, made it the longest running Main Event final in WSOP history. And as we pointed out in our November Nine recap from last year, only 24 out of the 274 hands that were played at the final table (less than 10 percent) were shown on TV.
Also, the heads-up match between the eventual champ Eastgate and runner-up Demidov lasted four hours and took 104 hands to complete. ESPN only had time to show two of those heads-up hands and the first one it showed was actually the 97th of the heads-up match. Because of time constraints it was never mentioned in the telecast that Demidov, who came into heads-up trailing Eastgate by more than 23 million chips, actually came back to take the chip lead, before Eastgate stormed back to win the title.
Horowitz said that ESPN did quite a bit of research through surveys, focus groups and online polls and found that while the majority of the viewers of last year's episode like what they saw, they also wanted to see more heads-up play.
"And that's what we're going to give them," he said. "The best part is that we aren't constricting ourselves to two hours. If we feel we have the kind of material that warrants going over two hours, we're going to do it, much like a NFL or NBA game that goes into overtime. Chances are if we do go over two hours, those extra minutes of coverage may be some of the best stuff we have."
And with a guy like Phil Ivey sitting at the final table, there's likely to be plenty of footage that poker fans are going to want to see. While saying that he is "in the business of rooting for great stories, not rooting for specific players," Horowitz said that having one of the game's most popular and recognizable players in the mix this year can only aid ESPN.
"It's great because when you look for a great story, you have two ends of the spectrum and I think we have both this year," he explained. "On the one end, you like to have an unknown -- a guy like Chris Moneymaker in 2003 who literally came out of nowhere to beat a pro like Sammy Farha. That's a great story and I think we have that element in [chipleader] Darvin Moon, who is definitely the kind of guy people can get behind because he's an amateur's amateur.
"On the other end of the spectrum, a good story is when you have the big star. And we have that with Phil Ivey. I think as storytellers, we're incredibly lucky to have Phil there. I mean, we covered him from the very first day when he walked in and sat down right up until now. That certainly makes for compelling TV."
The poker viewers have certainly been captivated by this year's coverage already. Ratings for this year's WSOP coverage are already up 12% from last year overall, including 12% in the male 18 to 49 demographic and 16% in the male 25 to 54 demographic. This means that there's already more interest in the WSOP this year and that should equate to more interest in the final table.
From an actual production and editing standpoint, ESPN will use a similar strategy to last year. A makeshift production studio will be set up in the Rio parking lot that will mirror the studios that ESPN uses in New York at 441 Productions for its WSOP production. Production staff will be sitting in golf carts outside the theater waiting to collect tapes from 40 high-definition cameras and drive them to what Horowitz calls the "poker compound" three minutes away
Last year's show required several producers to go without sleep between the hours of 8 a.m. Sunday morning until the show aired on Tuesday night. Announcers Lon McEachern and color man Norman Chad spent about 14 hours in a voice over booth on Monday.
"I'm trying to get all my sleep in now before we go into production because there's not much time to get sleep once the final table begins," said McEachern, who is in his seventh season as the main announcer for ESPN poker coverage. "It's really an amazing experience to go through. [Norm and I] are in the driver's seat when it all unfolds and sometimes we get too much of the credit. But in reality it's really a great team effort by all of the dedicated and talented people that work around us."
"I generally sleep while Norm is talking, so that usually gives me 45 to 50 minutes per hour to sleep during the telecast," chimed in McEachern's color man Chad in his typical tongue-in-cheek fashion. "So I expect to be fully rested."
While the extra day this year will aid ESPN from a time standpoint, Horowitz certainly doesn't expect to be getting much sleep over the course of the three days of the final table. In fact, he expects the editing process to last right up until late Tuesday afternoon.
"The action will start on Saturday at 12 noon and we'll literally start editing film about 15 minutes later," said Horowitz. "It's just such a cram edit. I don't think the casual fan realizes that the shows we put together for the other World Series coverage takes us four to five weeks and we use every bit of that time. Now, we're doing it in a day or two, so needless to say the extra time will certainly come in handy.
"But I still don't see us finishing this thing until we actually have to start feeding it back to [ESPN headquarters in] Bristol [Conn.], which would be around 4 p.m. Vegas time."
One part of the WSOP coverage that has been scrapped this season is the preview show that ran the week before the final table last year. Horowitz said the network felt that it would be better suited to run its coverage of the Main Event directly into the week before the final table instead of taking a week off for the preview show, which last year featured footage of what the nine players did during the 117-day break and analysis and predictions from poker pros like Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and Kenny Tran.
"We're experimenting; just because we didn't do it this year doesn't mean we won't do it next year," he said of the preview show that was hosted by McEachern and Chad. "I compare it to the Super Bowl. They're always experimenting with taking a week off before the game. This year we're trying it without the 'off' week."
The more Horowitz talked about the final table telecast, the more excited he got. He certainly didn't sound burnt out from the 192 days of coverage the network did this past summer, coverage that required 28,000 pounds of equipment. Instead, Horowitz was anxiously looking forward to what he calls a "demanding, yet gratifying professional experience."
"We can't wait to do this whole thing all over again," he said with a rise in his voice. "It's the Super Bowl of poker. And the crowd inside the Penn & Teller Theater really adds to the electricity. I can't wait to see what the finished product looks like because I think we're on the verge of putting together a terrific two hours of poker -- and quite possibly more."
ESPN may extend its 'same day coverage' of WSOP final table is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
Best of Gary Trask