ESPN Looks to Tilt Poker Table

ESPN is laying a bet that one of basic cable’s hottest programming genres -- poker competitions -- will pay off as its second original series.

Beginning Jan. 13 at 9 p.m., ESPN will air the first of nine one-hour episodes of Tilt, a drama taking place in Las Vegas in the days leading up to the World Series of Poker that will examine high-stakes gambling and the personal dynamics at and behind the tables.

ESPN has scored big ratings number with its taped coverage of the World Series of Poker the past two years.

Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Runaway Jury and gambling film Rounders) wrote and will direct the pilot episode. The pair will also serve as executive producers and pen a number of the episodes for ESPN Original Entertainment, which took its first stab at a drama series with Playmakers, a skein centered on a fictional football team.

Despite positive reviews and averaging a 1.9 household rating for its 11 premiere episodes last fall, Playmakers never made the cut for a sophomore season, as the National Football League voiced its displeasure with the series for depicting characters wrestling with gambling, familial and drug problems.

“The launch of our next drama underscores ESPN’s commitment to scripted entertainment,” executive vice president of programming and production Mark Shapiro said in a prepared statement. “Capitalizing on the incredible popularity of theWorld Series of Poker and Playmakers, Tilt promises to put the audience at the table and into the lives of the characters.”

Since it began July 6, the 2004 World Series of Poker has averaged a 1.5 household rating for 14 episodes on ESPN.

Before EOE deals out the cards for Tilt, it will present a pair of telepics: Hustle, a movie based on the life of Pete Rose; and a look at late National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing legend Dale Earnhardt Dec. 11.