Vegas, Baby: TV Bets on Gambling

Bravo (search), the Travel Channel and even a new network are all rolling the dice, betting that the growing trend of airing gambling on TV will turn into a ratings jackpot.

The Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour" has been a hit with viewers. Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown" is cha-chinging! for that channel, with hot contestants like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon drawing viewers. And soon to be launched, according to an announcement late last year: the Casino and Gaming Television (search) cable network, devoted entirely to gambling.

"This is a trend that's going to continue," said Kristin Veitch, a TV columnist for E! Online. "The guys need something to watch while the women are watching how to make over their homes."

But not everyone is happy that card sharks seem to be the next big thing in cable programming. Medical experts say gambling can be as addictive as drugs and shouldn't be glamorized.

"Anytime you glamorize a high-risk behavior, for some people that's going to be the kickoff to an eventual addictive disorder," said gambling addiction expert and neuropsychiatrist Dr. Lawson Bernstein.

He warned that increased exposure to gambling could prove dangerous to some viewers.

"The biochemical changes in the brain associated with gambling are not dissimilar to the biochemical effects of drugs of abuse such as cocaine," Bernstein said. "In some people it will engender a high, and they'll start to chase that high."

Addicted or not, many TV viewers can't seem to get enough of the televised card games.

The "World Poker" championship captured more than 1.1 million viewers when it aired last June — huge numbers for a niche cable channel like the Travel Channel (search). Since then, the series has been snapping up more than 900,000 viewers a pop.

"Celebrity Poker" has also been generating new interest in the popular casino table game.

As for Casino and Gaming TV — it will be a digital cable and satellite channel with poker tips, shows like "Winning Hand" and travel programs like "Dusk 'Til Dawn," which will feature a tour of nightspots in gambling-heavy destinations like Las Vegas and Monaco. The target audience is men aged 21 to 34.

"There obviously is a fascination with Vegas," Veitch said. "There's something really appealing about that world."

Gambling continues to be a popular pastime in the U.S. More than 51 million people — about a quarter of the U.S. population over age 21 — visited commercial casinos in 2002, according to the American Gaming Association's most recent survey. Commercial casino revenues increased by 3 percent in 2002, to $26.5 billion, the survey found. Legalized gambling is a $54 billion industry overall.

And gambling fans are applauding the new TV trend, saying they're definitely tuning in.

"If they can't do it themselves, they enjoy watching it," said Melanie Cribbs, 31, of New York, who's hip on Roulette and poker machines. "It's more than just the chance to win money — it's the whole energy of the casino that makes it exciting."

Cribbs watched the "World Poker Tour" and is interested in "Celebrity Poker Showdown." She also plans to check out the Casino and Gaming channel when it's up and running.

But Bernstein warns that the increased visibility of gambling could spell trouble. Not only has he noticed an increase in gambling addictions in his own practice, but he's heard anecdotally that the problem is on the rise.

"It's a public health problem that will likely get worse before it gets better," he said.

He worries about pop culture fads like online gambling and gambling TV, which help bring the pastime to the masses and expand its appeal.

"You may be priming a generation to become gambling addicts," Bernstein said. "It trivializes it."

Even gambling fans acknowledge the TV shows might be detrimental for some.

"It's kind of like promoting cigarettes or drinking," Cribbs said. "It's another addiction that could be harmful."

But TV producers are desperate for programming that appeals to male viewers in the coveted 18 to 34 age group, who have been disappearing from TV audiences recently. Gambling shows could be one ticket back to the missing men.

"Aside from sports, they're grasping at something to appeal to [men]," Veitch said.

And programs like "Celebrity Poker" aren't vastly different from the old game shows, she pointed out.

"The traditional game shows don't do so well anymore," Veitch said. "People are tired of that format, of the cheesy host offering fabulous prizes and lovely parting gifts. This is just a new incarnation of that."