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Tuned In: Poker shows hold winning hand; clock's running out on 'Playmakers'

Thursday, January 08, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD -- NBC renewed its freshman drama "Las Vegas," and now televised poker competitions are gaining ground, including Bravo's celebrity poker specials. Even The History Channel will get into the act April 4 with the premiere of "Breaking Vegas," which documents the card-counting skills of a group of MIT students in the mid-1990s.

"Gambling is such a big part of society and such an important thing to so many people that the history of it is something we'll touch upon periodically," said Charlie Maday, History Channel's senior vice president of programming. "We've run a history of Las Vegas. The history of gambling is another area that's just fascinating, filled with a lot of intrigue that goes back many, many years."

Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour," the network's most successful series ever, returns for its second season March 3. Executive producer Steven Lipscomb said the technological innovations that allow viewers to see the hands held by players is what's made poker a newly popular television programming genre. Although professional poker players had questions about use of the cameras at first, ultimately they're happy with what it's done for poker.

"No one's had trouble," said professional player Chris Ferguson. "It has grown poker so much. There's now so many more opportunities than before we started showing the cards."

So, why poker? Why now?

"When a sensation hits our universe, it's very difficult to trace where it came from," Lipscomb said. "Before Travel Channel stepped up, nobody would even have thought this could happen. It's very seldom you have a 60 million-person audience that's, in essence, untapped."

Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour: Hollywood Home Game" premieres Jan. 25 featuring celebrities such as Richard Karn, Drew Carey, Jack Black, Ming-Na, Ben Affleck, Ed Asner and Camryn Manheim. NBC will air "WPT's Battle of Champions" as alternative programming to CBS's Super Bowl pre-game coverage on Feb. 1.

'Playmakers' in limbo

ESPN still has yet to announce a decision about the future of "Playmakers," the critically acclaimed drama series about a fictional professional football team. Many NFL officials and players lambasted the drama for its depiction of bad behavior by players in a fictional league. ESPN carries NFL games on Sunday nights, and many have speculated that the network could lose those rights if it continues to make "Playmakers."

"They have never said that, but they are a partner of ours ... and we are not in the business of antagonizing our partners," said Ron Semiao, senior vice president of ESPN original entertainment. "Clearly we've offended them, and we're taking that into consideration in the decision-making process."

Semiao said a decision will likely be made about the future of the series by March 1, but don't hold your breath hoping for a positive outcome. "Playmakers" looks to be as good as dead.

"Playmakers" executive producer Orly Adelson said she never meant the show to be interpreted as an indictment of the NFL.

"We set out to do a good series, a fictional series," she said.

Adelson will executive-produce ESPN's next original movie, "3: The Dale Earnhardt Story," which is expected to air this summer. Russell Mulcahy ("Skin," "Queer as Folk") will direct.

Other movies in development include "Hustle: The Pete Rose Story" and "West Point Scandal," about the 1951 Army football team cribbing scandal.

'MI-5' renewed

Now some good news on a quality cable drama: A&E has picked up the third season of British spy drama "MI-5," which begins production in London this month. It's expected to air in the United States late this year.

Stars Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, David Oyelowo and Peter Firth return in the lead roles. Rupert Penry-Jones joins the cast as a former MI-6 operative who joins MI-5.

Debating Irwin

Since he held his infant son dangerously close to a hungry crocodile, "Crocodile Hunter" star Steve Irwin has come under fire for bad parenting and has been compared to Michael Jackson, who dangled his child from a hotel room balcony. Discovery Networks president Billy Campbell acknowledged that he was baffled by Irwin's behavior.

"I didn't agree with what he did, but as his partner and collaborator, I supported him," Campbell said.

Irwin is under a long-term contract with Discovery Networks, and Campbell said, "I look forward to being in business with him as long as I possibly can be."

Special 'CSI' episode

Daily Variety reports that CBS will attempt to blunt the ratings impact of NBC's "The Apprentice" next week when it airs for the first time in its 8 p.m. Wednesday time slot by airing an original episode of top-rated "CSI" at the same time.

"The Apprentice" has its 90-minute premiere tonight on NBC following an original episode of "Friends."

Seacrest syndicated

"American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest "extends his brand," as they say in the TV biz, launching a daily syndicated show Monday.

"On-Air With Ryan Seacrest" combines elements of "Entertainment Tonight," "Total Request Live" and late-night talk shows to offer an alternative to evening newscasts. "On-Air" will be broadcast between 3 and 7 p.m. on local stations nationally, including at 5 p.m. daily on Pittsburgh's WCWB.

To make room for Seacrest's show, "Dharma & Greg" reruns move to 10 p.m., "Blind Date" gets bumped to 11 p.m. and "Elimidate" jumps to WPGH at midnight.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 or .

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