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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Casinos Remain Cautious of Reality Shows

27 September 2004

LAS VEGAS -- From its June debut up to the final episode of the Fox network reality show "The Casino" last month, the Golden Nugget experienced an increase in business and the kind of publicity that can't be bought.

But the display of excess has also served as a cautionary tale for other properties aiming to capitalize on the popularity of Las Vegas casino culture and the reality show craze.

The show -- which Golden Nugget reps say was largely crafted around creative editing rather than real-life drama -- had area public relations executives and casino operators shaking their heads. Locals called it sleazy and not in tune with the owners' purported image of the property as a classic Vegas hangout on the upswing.

Some unflattering episodes showed grumbling players chasing their losses, a disgruntled wedding party and women who looked suspiciously like strippers. In an early episode, a gambler lured an attractive woman to his hotel room who turned out to be a man.

Whether the sleaze factor became an issue or whether the storylines weren't compelling enough isn't clear, but Fox was lukewarm and did not renew the show for a second season as hoped.

"We didn't see the creative direction of the show moving in a way that we had hoped and the ratings reflected that," Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said last week.

Fox said "The Casino" attracted about 4.4 million viewers per episode -- a fairly respectable showing but far less than the 10 million per episode of some popular reality shows such as NBC's "The Apprentice."

By contrast, Discovery Channel's "American Casino" series, a documentary-style profile of day-to-day operations at the Green Valley Ranch Station casino in Henderson, has become a critical success.

Discovery has renewed for a second season and will tape another 18 episodes at the resort. The first season ends next month.

Green Valley Ranch General Manager and show regular Joe Hasson said he is pleased by the show and the national exposure it has brought the off-Strip property.

"They have a welcome pass to our business and the camera is rolling up to 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Hasson said. "As it is, some of it is very, very good and some is bad. But most of it captures exactly what we do for a living."

Several customers have told employees that they sought out the property because of the show, which has transformed several behind-the-scenes managers into minor celebrities. The storylines focus on employees in high-stress situations such as preparing a banquet, pampering high-rollers and handling brawling customers.

Las Vegas is increasingly becoming the hip backdrop for television drama, which begets more publicity and is good for business, tourism officials say.

"Even if it didn't garner a lot of positive response, it got our name out there," Jeanne Corcoran, production manager for the Nevada Film Office, said of the flood of reality shows that have taped in Las Vegas in recent years.

"People don't remember the content so much as they remember the name," she said. "It all has a wonderful trickle-down effect with our target market, which is the rest of the world."

Television's love affair with reality shows comes as Las Vegas receives unprecedented media attention for its youth-oriented, sex-infused culture. The popularity of poker, driven in part by multiple televised tournaments, has also drawn the eyes of the nation.

"We've never had this many television shows based in Vegas at any one time in our history," said Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "Any type of television exposure that allows the Las Vegas vibe and excitement of the destination to be showcased works to our advantage."

The tourism authority serves as a one-stop shop for production companies looking to screen hotels for film and television projects.

Production companies that film in public are required to obtain permits from the Film Office, which has created a new "reality TV" category to track those types of productions.

About 80 of the 600-plus production companies the office registered over the past year through June were taping for reality shows, a small but growing percentage, Corcoran said.

"Even though they don't have the budget of a $100 million movie they still spend thousands of dollars per day," she said. "And it means millions in free advertising."

Casino operators have mixed views on reality shows. Some say they hand over too much control to producers and put a casino's image at risk.

MGM Mirage has so far turned down several offers for reality shows at its properties.

"The decision was based in some part on the fact that reality shows don't work unless someone is having a bad time of it," spokesman Alan Feldman said. "As a general rule we're here to talk about all the fun things to do in Las Vegas."

The audience for some shows "doesn't quite match" that of prospective clients at the featured properties, Feldman said. Each MGM Mirage property appeals to a different demographic, he said.

"Fear Factor" received a warm welcome at Mandalay Resort Group after it was turned away at MGM Mirage.

"It's a mutually beneficial relationship," Mandalay Bay resort spokesman Gordon Absher said of the show, which has aired two episodes at Mandalay properties and is negotiating a third episode.

One episode, which featured participants sliding down the side of the Luxor hotel and aired in March 2003, became the highest-rated program in the show's history and resulted in a spike in room reservations at the resort, Absher said.

" 'Fear Factor' is unscripted but there are parameters, with contestants and prizes like a game show," he said. "We know what areas they're going to be shooting in and we can negotiate with the producers to agree on things that ... won't disrupt customers. We've arrived at a certain degree of trust in them."

Caesars Entertainment Inc. is the latest resort to take the plunge.

The company has signed a deal with the A&E network to create a behind-the-scenes look at Caesars Palace. Caesars, overshadowed by newer and ritzier competitors in recent years, is in the midst of the first major makeover in the property's 38-year history.

When asked whether the company would have editorial control over the product, Caesars Entertainment spokesman Michael Coldwell would only say that the details of the contract "give us a level of assurance that what will eventually be aired will be in keeping with the brand message of Caesars Palace while providing engaging and entertaining programming."

The as-yet unnamed show is in production and is expected to air in early 2005.

The two casino shows, under the watch of reality show production veterans with full editorial control, yielded very different results.

The Golden Nugget's Breitling said the publicity from "The Casino" has been good for business even though the property's image suffered a bit in the hands of producer Mark Burnett, the creator of the "Survivor" franchise and a pioneer of the reality show format.

"We didn't know about or agree with all of the stories that were told," Breitling said. "They did casting for attention-seeking folks and the producers focused on outside protagonists that were driving the narrative of each episode."

The show should have focused more on the personality of the property and its employees, he said. Since acquiring the Golden Nugget from MGM Mirage last year, Breitling and Poster have introduced a non-smoking poker room, high-limit gambling area and reduced odds on table games. The casino also has brought in more lounge entertainment reminiscent of Old Vegas, such as a 12-piece jazz band.

The show's primary critics have been locals who are defensive about Las Vegas' image, Breitling said. But the general consensus of the letters, phone calls and postings on the show's fan site is that out-of-town viewers liked the show, he said.

The Green Valley Ranch show is the brainchild of an ex-partner with Burnett on "Survivor," Craig Piligian, whose reality show marriage with Discovery began with another documentary-style drama about the goings-on in a custom motorcycle shop.

Web bookings at Green Valley Ranch are up about 300 percent since American Casino's debut in June. Discovery doesn't release ratings information.

"I'd love to have a long run with this," Hasson said. "The casino business is different every day. One day we're intently focused on table games and another day we're focused on fine dining. The number of potential storylines is endless."

The Golden Nugget partners are talking with other production companies about possible reality shows and scripted shows down the road. Breitling, who wouldn't disclose details of the talks, has created a coffee-table book on vintage casinos and with Poster, will release a second book called "Golden Boys" based on the pair's rise from humble Internet entrepreneurs to multimillionaire stardom.

"We're not slowing down. We're just getting started," Breitling said. "We're going to continue to try and entertain people."