By Nathan Carroll, Rakeback.com Staff Writer
ESPN coverage of this year's World Series of Poker consists of 31 regular episodes, as well as an hour long preview special that aired on July 20th. Every successive Tuesday night featured and will continue to feature two new episodes aired back to back, starting at 9 P.M. Eastern.
Given that the most recent episodes to air were #13 and #14, we're very nearly halfway through the season. With those eight weeks already in the books, this is a logical time to examine the popularity of the coverage and think about how that might mean for the world of poker.
The overall rating given to the first half of the WSOP coverage by the dependable Nielsen Media Research group is a 0.67. Since a rating of 1 corresponds to a viewership of 1.1 million, the 0.67 rating mean that an average of 737,000 viewers tune in during any given episode of the 2010 coverage. Although that sounds like a big number, it represents a significant audience decrease from the 2009 season. At this time last year, ESPN was pulling a 0.79 on their WSOP coverage.
Although the cold, hard numbers seem to paint a picture of declining public interest in competitive poker, there are several other factors at work here that make then story more meaningful than just a 16% decline.
As broadband internet reaches more and more poker fans across the nation--and the world over--traditional forms of media consumption no longer fully explain the way television programs are being enjoyed. Many poker fans will chose to download or stream new episodes from the Internet instead of watching them premiere on television. The problem of how to adequately count all these additional viewers is one that weighs heavily on the future of media, and it is one that ESPN is not alone in confronting.
Also, there's data to suggest that ESPN is making a mistaking by doubling down on their coverage of the main event. In fact, the biggest bright spot in the raw data comes from the episodes devoted to the Poker Player's Championship. With every player risking $50,000 just to enter, it's not surprising that the field was primarily made up of well-known pros. It's also not surprising that the chance to see elite players battle against each other brought in more viewers than any average episode this year. What is surprising is ESPN's decision to spend only two episodes covering the star-studded tournament.
So while the average viewership has decreased from 2009 to 2010, there's no reason to believe that the American public is losing interest in the game. In spite of the lower ratings on ESPN, the overall experience of tournament coverage has become much richer. The recent years have seen an explosion in online poker media, producing news and analysis of the tournament circuit and bringing together enthusiasts from all over the world. Additionally, the advent and subsequent ubiquity of Twitter as a micro-blogging platform has given fans of the game a way communicate directly with their favorite players in real time.
Of course, there's another reason these numbers shouldn't be taken too seriously yet--the main event final table. The final table episode is one of the biggest draws of the whole season, especially now that the recent changes to the tournament structure delay it until November. It will be played out on November 6th, just three days before the corresponding episode on ESPN. This gambit was intended to increase buzz during the lead-up to the season finale, and it has been paying off so far. The audience statistics for that episode will be crucial in determining the popularity of the season as a whole, and so it's hard to make any pessimistic conclusions before that time.
The best way to show your support for ESPN's poker coverage is to tune in live, so be sure to not miss the final table episode on Tuesday, November 9th at 9 P.M. Eastern.
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