The Power of Television

#182 © Copyright 2012, I. Nelson Rose, Encino, California. 
All rights reserved worldwide. 
Gambling and the Law® is a registered trademark of Professor I. Nelson Rose 
www.GamblingAndTheLaw.com

“If you are not on television you don’t exist”
Jack Valenti

The more things change, the more . . . What? They remain the same? They change?

One of the last book stores in Los Angeles recently closed. And record stores are just as rare.

This doesn’t mean that people aren’t buying, or at least reading, books. And more individuals have copies of recorded music, mostly downloaded, than when it was only available on vinyl or tape.

What does this portend for legal gaming?

Content still seems to be more important than platform. You may have to call it, for legal reasons, a video lottery terminal, or electronic bingo, or a fixed odds betting terminal. But, the game has to play basically like a slot machine.

For mass retailers, whether the box store is online or landbased, selling clothing or gambling, customers want products and services they recognize and trust. The experience has to be satisfying, regardless of how it has been delivered.

For most forms of legal gaming, patrons want games they have played before. The success of Casino War, a slight variation on the card game played by children, shows that many gaming patrons want familiarity and comfort, along with their risk-taking.

Brand-names can be instant nostalgia. Wheel of Fortune® was the major breakthrough. Customers instantly recognized the slogan, “Wheel of Fortune!” called out by the bank of slot machines. Its success led manufacturers to look for other well-known brand-names: I Love Lucy®, Star Trek®, Elvis®.

The whole point of branded slots is to tap in to our warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia. Such selling-by-association is certainly nothing new: movies like Star Wars® may make more money from toys and other products than from the movie itself. But it is relatively new to legal gambling.

How did those brand names get so deeply buried in our consciousness? Most seem to have become part of the collective culture and memory of Americans through television. Movies are a close second, with recorded music far behind. It is more difficult for other consumer items to become cultural icons: Harley Davidson is a rare example of a non-entertainment brand-name making the transition to gaming.

The power of T.V. can be seen in the nearly complete dominance of Texas Hold‘em over all other forms of poker. In fact, the World Series of Poker (“WSOP”) is a stark reminder that Texas Hold‘em has become, in the minds of most people, synonymous with poker, due to television.

Why don’t people look for other games when they walk into a casino poker room? If you are younger than 35, you may not remember a time when other forms of poker were dealt in both cardclubs and home games. If you’re under 25, you may not even know there are other forms of poker.

This is only a slight exaggeration. When players of all ages are taught poker today, they start, and usually stick with, only one game.

The WSOP does feature 7-Card Stud and even the exotic Omaha Hi-Low Split. But, does anyone today play Roll Your Own, Burt-Don’t-Look or Anaconda? Do new players know that Baseball and Dr. Pepper are not just a ball game and soda pop?

It was not always this way. As recently as 1960, Texas Hold ‘em was considered so bizarre that an overhead shot of a table with 12 players got a two-page-wide photo spread in Look Magazine. Even the name of the game was still in dispute. The Look piece is entitled: “‘Hold Me’: a wild new poker game.”

So, how did Texas Hold ‘em become so dominant?

The answer tells us a lot about how gambling, especially legal gambling, spreads. It is a story of some of the greatest forces in modern America: television and war.

War is the innovator. Whenever you bring together hundreds of thousands of young men for long periods of times with absolutely nothing to do, new forms of gambling develop. Craps has been a long-term problem for casinos, because the players who learned the dice game in World War II are all dying off.

The great American game of poker, a truly home-grown invention, was created out of war. The Civil War allowed the recently developed game of draw poker to spread and evolve. Stud poker was invented by soldiers who had grown tired of draw.

Draw and stud poker spread throughout the western frontier. But it took two more wars to create the modern game. World War I brought into play seven-card stud, while World War II led to the invention of Texas hold ‘em.

Television is the propagator. Football only became a prime at-home spectator sport with the start of Monday Night Football in 1970. Spurred on by a reduction in the federal excise tax on legal sports wagers from 10% to 2%, casinos installed ever bigger and more technologically sophisticated sportsbooks.

And it was T.V. that made Texas Hold ‘em a household name.

In 1973, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder and CBS were interested in filming an hour-long documentary on the WSOP. But they had two major drawbacks: First, poker players have poker faces. They figured the normal lack of emotions could be overcome through careful editing.

But who wants to see an hour of the back of players’ cards? No amount of creative camera work could make a game like five-card draw interesting to a home audience.

The obvious answer was that some of the cards had to be face up. Five-card stud is usually boring, and seven-card stud would probably be too complicated for home viewers who had rarely, or never, played poker. But a game with community cards worked perfectly. As a nice bonus, Benny Binion and the top players he invited during those first few years knew and liked Texas hold ‘em.

Over the years, CBS continued to broadcast footage from the WSOP; in the 1980s ESPN began airing hour-long shows. The cameras always focused on Texas Hold ‘em.

Then, in 2003, the hole-card camera was introduced. And five card draw became extinct.

There does not appear to be a new social media that has the universal appeal of television. It will probably be a while before Angry Birds and Farmville appear on the faces of slot machines. More importantly, the days when almost everyone in America knew the same things — from why Juliet was on her balcony to what is the Bat-Signal — are almost over. The mega-hits, like Harry Potter®, are few and far between. Instead, everyone with a computer, which means everyone, can create their own popular culture, and be in complete ignorance of what interests other members of society. For example, people who read this column are much more likely to follow the exploits of Chris (“Jesus”) Ferguson than Kim Kardashian.

But, T.V. still has power. Even I know, a little, about Kim Kardashian, because she is enough of a celebrity to be the object of ridicule on shows like Saturday Night Live.

It is impossible to predict the next fad big enough to become immortalized as a slot machine. But at least for a few years the odds are that, whatever it is, it will make its greatest impact through television.

END

© 2012, I. Nelson Rose. Prof. Rose is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on gambling law, and is a consultant and expert witness for governments, industry and players. His latest books, Internet Gaming Law (1st and 2nd editions), Blackjack and the Law and Gaming Law: Cases and Materials, are available through his website, www.GamblingAndTheLaw.com.