Hot Poker TV In Danger of Folding

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High-stakes poker shows have proliferated on television during the past decade to the point that -- fueled by advertising from flush gaming websites -- about 50 programs air each week on networks as diverse as broadcasters NBC and Fox and the most obscure cable channels.

But on April 15, the Justice Department dropped its hammer on the poker community by indicting founders of the largest online poker enterprises, including Full Tilt, Poker Stars and Absolute Poker, on charges of money laundering. Online gaming sites, which are estimated to generate about $5 billion a year in revenue, also happen to be the biggest sponsors of televised poker. Now the future of the game on TV is in serious doubt as networks have begun throwing in their cards.

Fox has folded two of its shows, PokerStars Big Game and PokerStars Million Dollar Challenge. ESPN has pulled PokerStars North American Poker Tour, its featured poker show of the spring, despite the fact that production on the series has been completed. "Given all that was happening, it didn't feel right to continue," ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys says.

Shows like Poker After Dark on NBC could be next to go, and even highly rated shows likeESPN's World Series of Poker -- though apparently safe for now -- might look radically different if poker advertising dries up.

From the first ante, poker has enjoyed a strange relationship with television. To many observers, the boom in such shows as World Series of Poker and Fox's Million Dollar Challenge owed to increasing public appetite for the game and the rise of telegenic players including Phil Ivey, Chris Moneymaker and Phil Hellmuth.

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