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Fox prepares 'The Casino' without product placements or sponsorships


By Wade Paulsen, 05/01/2004 

Reality TV superproducer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice, The Restaurant) may be the best in reality TV at product placements, but he's finally found a subject he can't sell: gaming.

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Burnett's new Fox show, The Casino, which focuses on the efforts of two dot-com millionaires to restore the Golden Nugget casino to its luster of the 1940s and 1950s, has, according to Ad Age, been made without product placements or featured sponsorship deals. Considering that each of the 13 hourlong episodes cost over $1 million to film and edit, Burnett and Fox have taken a significant gamble of their own.

However, there appears to be at least one "behind-the-scenes" sponsor of the show, which will debut June 8: Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Company, which provided the equipment for the show to be filmed and aired in High Definition TV (HDTV). The Casino will be Fox's debut into HDTV -- a debut long sought by HDTV equipment manufacturers, who have been hoping for sales of HDTV equipment to revitalize the slumping consumer electronics industry.

Until 1999, Federal Communications Commission regulations prohibited legal casinos from showing gamblers in their advertising -- and even prohibited the mention of the word "casino" unless the word was part of the advertiser's name. That year, however, the Supreme Court struck down the advertising ban as unconstitutional in a Louisiana case. Although many broadcasters have interpreted that ruling as permitting all for-profit casinos to advertise just about anywhere, the FCC still characterizes the decision on its website as applying only to advertisements about lawful private casino gambling in states where casino gambling is legal.

We do not know whether the dearth of advertisers for The Casino is due to concerns about possible FCC action against product placements in The Casino or whether it simply relates to advertisers' desire to stay way from gaming and gamesters. We hope that the latter is the case.

Even dot-com millionaires who want to get involved in gaming may have dark secrets in their past, as Mark Burnett learned after announcing The Casino. Tim Poster and Tom Breiling, who sold their online travel business Travelscape.com to Expedia.com for $105 million, were found by the Nevada Gaming Control Board in a January 7 hearing to be closely tied to Vegas strip club owner Rick Rizzolo, who is reportedly under investigation by the FBI for ties to organized crime.

As a result, the Control Board recommended merely a one-year license for the duo (to ensure that Rizzolo wasn't a silent partner), which led to a downgrade in the acquisition debt, which in turn threatened to collapse the duo's $215 million acquisition of the Vegas and Laughlin Golden Nugget properties from prior owners MGM Mirage. However, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that the Nevada Gaming Commission awarded the duo a four-year license with an optional one-year review despite the Control Board findings.

Despite the Golden Nugget's storied past (it was the original downtown Vegas casino under the thumb of gangsters Ben "Bugsy" Siegel and his NY-based partners Meyer Lansky and Charles "Lucky" Luciano before Bugsy took over building the first Vegas "luxury" resort, the Flamingo), the Golden Nugget faces substantial challenges in ever returning to its one-time pinnacle. The fact that MGM Mirage (owner of the MGM Grand, the Bellagio, the Mirage, Treasure Island, New York - New York, the Boardwalk and Monte Carlo in Vegas), which is battling for Vegas supremacy with Caesars Entertainment (formerly part of Hilton Hotels and owner of the Flamingo, the Las Vegas Hilton, Caesars Palace, Bally's and Paris in Vegas), says a lot about the unimportance of downtown casinos in today's Vegas. No wonder the new owners opened the doors to a reality-TV show -- it might be the only way to get people to leave the Las Vegas Strip.

However, this is not the first reality-TV show developed around a Nevada casino-hotel, nor is it the only one in production. Back in 2003, the Anglo-Dutch reality TV giant Endemol made a six-epsiode reality-soap entitled Casino, which focused on employees of Vegas' The Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino, for BBC3 in the UK. Currently in pre-production is a show by Ben Silverman's Reveille Productions, Mark Burnett's original partner on a casino-themed reality show, entitled The Club that will focus on Vegas' Hard Rock Casino and Hotel and is expected to air on Spike TV in the US. Meanwhile, the Discovery Channel has filmed a 13-episode show called American Casino, set at the Green Valley Ranch Station Casino in Henderson, which is also expected to air this summer and which hopes to divert some press attention from the Fox show.

The social stigma still associated with gaming and gamesters even affects such personages as Mark Burnett himself, who told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "I never gamble." We assume that he was referring to his decision to make The Casino, which he described to Ad Age as a "calculated risk as opposed to a gamble." We hate to tell Mr. Burnett that most successful gamblers at games of chance also would describe what they do as calculating risks.

In his effort to reduce the risk, Burnett is employing 18 camera crews and is using 22 Panasonic VariCam High Definition cameras. Also, so that he didn't have to focus on slot-machine players or random millionaires who didn't mind being filmed, Burnett held nationwide casting calls looking for genuine high-rollers and compelling low-rollers. Passing celebrities, such as Tony Bennett, Jewel and the rock band Barenaked Ladies, will also appear -- but the show's main action will be focused around a gaming pit with blackjack, craps and roulette, in which a mixture of random and planned events will take place.

One thing that isn't staged is the money being won or lost. According to one of Burnett's on-site producers, Roy Banks, "[The players] return here and they gamble their own money -- it's all real money -- and we either want them to win or we want them to lose."

We tend to think that, like The Restaurant, a successful prime-time run for The Casino over the summer will lead to a regular-season sequel. This will be more likely if, like the typical Burnett show, the program attracts the Adult 18-49 demographic as well as upper-income, well-educated viewers ... and if the FCC chooses not to object to the advertising during The Casino's initial run.

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