Behind the television scenes at the WSOP

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By Christopher Cosenza

In honor of the World Series of Poker’s November Nine I thought I’d dedicate this month’s column to the broadcast you’ll be watching at 9 p.m. Nov. 11 on ESPN (and over and over again in reruns until the end of time). Have you ever wondered how these guys do it? And by “guys” I mean the crew at 411 Productions who have the unenviable task of filming hours and hours of poker footage and weeding out what’s not interesting, paring down what’s left to a few minutes, interviewing characters from the final table, acquiring old photos and home videos from these players and inserting them seamlessly into coverage that’s neatly packaged for you every Tuesday evening.

“The entire crew will be doing several weeks’ worth of work in a matter of just a few days,” said host Lon McEachern, who’s been with ESPN in some capacity since the mid 1990s but has called the WSOP coverage since 2002. “I have not seen a schedule yet, but I know everyone on our crew will be working long, late hours to make the show happen. The best way to approach these types of situations is to take on a ‘bunker mentality.’ No, this won’t be a fun, light experience but we know it has to get done and we will get it done and it will be very good television.”

I asked McEachern to take me through his process on a normal WSOP production schedule.
“There are several phases of production beginning with the actual event, but the bulk of my work, of course, is the actual announcing, which for scores of common-sense reasons we do after the fact in a New York City studio over a period of several months. I travel to New York from my California home about every other week from the end of July until November. During the course of my week in New York we complete four shows and once in a while shoot a series of our on-camera standups. While at home I receive packets of material pertaining to the next week’s shows, including working copies of the shows. There is plenty of homework to be done for each show so I stay busy when I am not in New York and incorporate that with information I gathered while in Las Vegas.

“Once in the studio we will voice the show, which takes several hours. After a lunch break we get together with various producers and watch the show and take notes on what could be done better and correct any errors that slipped out. After that Norman (Chad) and I get back in the sound booth and do the finish work. That night we go back to our homes away from home and do any last-minute prep work needed for the next day’s show.”

Now imagine that effort being produced from the minute the final table ends early in the morning Nov. 10 until the show is broadcast Nov. 11 at 9 p.m. Quite remarkable, and that’s just what Lon and Norman do. It gives you a better appreciation of what you see every week. And you wonder why I’m a TiVo poker junkie!

Speaking of Norman Chad, I wondered if having less time to prepare would hurt the chemistry between the announcers since they usually have the luxury of seeing the show ahead of time and fleshing out ideas. But McEachern assured me there’s no cause for concern.

“He and I are like that whether we’re in the sound booth together doing a show, having dinner or riding the subway back to the hotel. We’re just being ourselves and we happen to get along and mesh well in the TV world. That will be the easy part. … Most of the fun of doing the show is wondering what Norman will come up with next because I really appreciate his sense of humor.”

McEachern, who also hosts the mixed martial arts show Strikeforce on NBC, was pretty tightlipped about any surprises ESPN might have in store, but that’s just because he honestly didn’t know. He anticipates the show will follow the usual two-hour arc with the various storylines that took place at (and away from) the final table.

“All of our shows are meant to be a seamless capsulation of an event,” he said. “I imagine this year’s main-event final table will be no different in terms of what our goals are. It’s just that the final product has to be on the air within hours of the event ending. That’s where any extra pressure will come from. I have no doubt our crew will be able to pull it off.”

So how does he think this first November Nine will be remembered?

“I sincerely hope the moment is remembered most for the play at the table and not for the odd schedule that has resulted from this decision. I know ESPN and 441 Productions have no desire to influence the play, and they go out of their way to make sure that does not happen. But this change was a Harrah’s decision and we had to work with it since they own the WSOP. I take the change as a sign that Harrah’s is not afraid to try something new to make the product better and I respect them for that. They work closely with a player advisory council in many of the decisions they make.”

High Stakes Poker update: An inside source, and by that I mean co-host A.J. Benza, tells me the fifth season of High Stakes Poker on GSN is tentatively set to film at the end this month with broadcasts beginning in January. Speaking of High Stakes, I couldn’t help but ask McEachern if he watches the competition.

“Occasionally I’ll watch the other shows,” he said. “I do not actively avoid them, it’s just when I’m home I’m pretty busy with other things (and if the truth be told I am not the king of the remote while at home). Each show brings a little something different to the genre, which is just how it should be and is how they all survive. All poker shows cannot cater to all viewers and should not even try to.”

And does he miss working with Gabe Kaplan, with whom McEachern made his poker broadcasting debut in 2002?

“Ha! I had a feeling you would ask something like that! Absolutely I miss working with Gabe, and I let Norman know it every chance I get. There have even been times on the air, when Gabe makes the show as a player, that I remind Norman that he’s no Gabe Kaplan. But given the current circumstances I am very happy with my on-air partner.”

— Email me at chris@anteupmagazine.com and let me know what you thought of the WSOP Main Event coverage on ESPN.