Monday, Nov. 1, 2010 | 2 a.m.
More than two years ago, UNLV professor and casino consultant Jeff Voyles had an “aha” moment while leafing through more than a dozen casino industry trade publications that have sprouted in the past decade.
“It just didn’t make sense, going through all this stuff,” he said. “If I took all this content and put it in a 24-hour news format, I could coordinate a less fragmented delivery of this information.”
That’s when Voyles set out to create a gaming industry news channel that aims to be part CNN, ESPN and Travel Channel — with a heavy dose of Inside Edition thrown in.
Voyles seems an unlikely media maven — he isn’t much of a journalist.
When he’s not teaching hundreds of UNLV students each week the art of running a casino floor or a hotel staff of thousands, he’s running his company — Gaming Network — that develops table games and marketing strategies for casinos. And when he’s not working 16-hour days in a 24-hour city — on call for casino customers and eager students — he’s flying to places like Puerto Rico, helping casinos create Las Vegas-style marketing campaigns and gambling strategies. Or, he’s hosting curious outsiders such as the Japanese businessmen who were in Las Vegas last week to discuss casinos for their country.
The idea of broadcasting casino culture to the masses is as old as the Vegas-themed reality show, televised poker and billion-dollar luxury resorts.
Entrepreneurs have failed over the years, burning through millions of dollars and disappearing as surely as an aging hotel by the wrecking ball.
Voyles isn’t daunted.
Along with the typical Las Vegas topics such as stage shows, poker and even resort pools, much of the network’s appeal, Voyles said, will stem from airing content that’s largely unknown to the public.
“This is not like sports or finance, where you can easily find experts all over the world,” he said. “This is a very specialized industry.”
The time is ripe, downturn notwithstanding, he said. More than 60 million people visited U.S. casinos in 2009, a business generating at least $30 billion a year. Casinos are a global industry — with a growing number of consultants, ex-casino managers and other experts willing to weigh in on a formerly secret enterprise.
Television cameras and editing equipment cost a fraction of the price, making a media enterprise more affordable, Voyles said. He has assembled people, cameras and editing equipment. With a few portable cameras, a green screen and a slimmed-down editing studio, Gaming Network’s offices near McCarran International Airport look nondescript, with a chair or simple table serving as a placeholder for elaborate, all-digital sets. Pushing a button, editors can pop in the appropriate background behind news hosts and interview subjects: say, a buzzing casino floor, stop-and-go traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard or glittering neon lights.
Breaking news and stock market segments to appeal to the news and industry crowd would feature prominently on the gaming channel, Voyles said.
Investors — businessmen with no casino connections who wish to remain anonymous — have pledged at least $1 million to kick-start development.
While Voyles is storyboarding content for his channel, Mark Bradley has been airing his before tens of millions of viewers.
Bradley, CEO of Players Network, has created thousands of hours of gaming and Las Vegas-themed entertainment content for cable channels in most major U.S. markets under providers such as Comcast and DirecTV, including Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Most of the programming — such as a recent special about a “sexy vampire” contest that takes place at the Mirage — is evergreen, with a splashy look and a celebrity or entertainment theme. One show, “Neon Buzz,” takes a behind-the-scenes look at production shows and other casino entertainment. Another interviews people who have won life-changing jackpots. The high-definition programming, available under the channels Players Network and Vegas on Demand, is free and on-demand. Few locals know about the shows because Cox Communications — not convinced of local interest — doesn’t broadcast them.
“When I first started this company 12 years ago, people said, ‘Why would anyone be interested in watching poker on TV?’ We have 2 million views of our programming every month. The demand is huge.”
Profits are elusive, however. The advertiser-supported networks don’t make money yet after five years on the air, although Bradley hopes to break even soon as viewership grows.
“I’ve seen a lot of companies come and go over the years,” he said of potential competitors. “I’ve seen management teams put millions into smoke and mirrors rather than content. We were 10 years ahead of our time.”
Skeptics say there aren’t enough viewers among the general population to make the 24-hour concept work.
“As a percentage of the population, it’s a minuscule audience,” said one casino industry CEO, who supports the idea but doesn’t think it will fly.
“There’s a wealth of free, real-time information available on the Web,” said Joe Weinert, senior vice president of consulting firm Spectrum Gaming Group and executive editor of Gaming Industry Observer, a trade publication. “Whether somebody would want then to tune into a TV show to view this information remains to be seen.”
The concept also has its fans.
Anthony Curtis, who runs gambling book publisher Huntington Press and the newsletter Las Vegas Advisor, is enthusiastic yet skeptical about its prospects.
“When I first heard about it 20 years ago, I thought it was a great idea and I still think it’s a great idea,” he said. “There’s absolutely a market for this. It’s why more than 80 percent of people come to Las Vegas — because they want to and not because they have to for business or whatever.”
Tony Alamo Sr., a retired Mandalay Resort Group executive, said the concept deserves review given the multitude of stories to be done. It could serve as a “public relations vehicle” to attract tourism, he said.
“I think a 24-hour gaming news channel is an interesting idea that is worth looking into very objectively,” he said. “How did we feel when CNN, ESPN and Fox started? I remember how repetitious CNN was because they were going through growing pains, but when they finally put it together the concept was successful and productive.”
Voyles said his edge will be his Rolodex of insiders, including the largely silent majority of people who are keepers of juicy stories about gambling, casino culture and entertainment.
Voyles knows, for example, that internal theft is a major problem in casinos, where employees have been handcuffed on the spot for their crimes. He also knows that some people pay kickbacks — in the form of tips or upfront cash — to their bosses for jobs.
He also knows that people want a public platform with which to talk about gaming, Nevada’s economic engine and a growing influence in other parts of the world.
Casino employees, he said, would have a show where they could explain their jobs and tell their stories. Executives, consultants and Wall Street analysts would have a go-to place to explain their business.
No subject would be too inside baseball or too exposed to get coverage. Kim Kardashian’s appearances at nightclubs, he said, would be as fair game as employees seeking to organize a union — or a fight to prevent management from sharing in the coveted tip pool.
Not that Voyles wants to become the Mike Wallace — or the “60 Minutes” — of the casino business.
“It wouldn’t be my goal to ruffle the feathers of the industry,” he said. “My job would be to give people a platform and ask the right questions to tell people what’s going on. I’m not here to take one side or the other.”