LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Television, as any programmer, producer or actor will tell you, is a gamble. So there should be no surprise that TV-themed slot machines are turning up in casinos across North America.
This was especially evident on a recent trip to Las Vegas. A walk through any of the top resorts — Caesars Palace, Wynn Resorts, Mandalay Bay or The Mirage — and you can't help but see brightly lit slot machines decorated with images from shows such as "Sex and the City," "CSI," "American Idol," "Family Guy" and "Survivor."
Even syndicated shows such as "Wheel of Fortune," "Deal or No Deal" and "Judge Judy" — which pays out in pennies — can be spotted in the gambling lounges.
More are on the way. As previewed at the most recent Global Gaming Expo, a slot machine modelled after "The Walking Dead" will be introduced in casinos this fall — just in time for the fourth season debut of the AMC series. Those machines will feature high-definition clips from the series.
The machines, as much as any Emmy Awards or magazine articles, are a sure sign a series has arrived. "The Walking Dead" has quietly become the most-watched drama in cable history, outdrawing series such as "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men" — two shows that don't have slot machine spin-offs so far.
Neither did "The Sopranos," with gamers perhaps sensitive to glorifying a mob boss like Tony Soprano in a Vegas resort.
Still, "The Walking Dead" could be a term used to describe bettors who walk away after sitting too long in front of a favourite machine.
The blinking, colourful gambling terminals don't just use TV show themes to lure customers. Feature films are also a popular draw. "The Hangover," set in Vegas, has been immortalized in slots, as has "The Dark Knight" Batman movies. Older films such as "Ghostbusters" and "The Wizard of Oz" are also featured in casinos. Even popular board game brands, such as "Clue" and "Monopoly," are used to attract players.
There is also an obvious pitch to boomers through machines with a '70s or '80s slant. Kiss slot machines sit next to Michael Jackson terminals.
John Drake, vice-president of marketing and former vice-president of gaming at Casino Rama north of Toronto, says the trend toward pop culture themes in slot machines has been growing over the past decade or so. "The manufacturers do this because they want to build games that have a huge revenue potential," he says.
Most machines are manufactured in the U.S. by Bally and IGT. "They've invested millions into developing games," says Drake.
Licensing has become a hot component, with video clips from certain shows and even voices from certain TV characters interacting with players. "There's more entertainment value to the experience now," says Jenna Hunter, Casino Rama's media relations manager.
Players sitting at a "Cheers"-themed game, for example, will hear actor John Ratzenberger speak to them as mailman Cliff Clavin from the classic sitcom.
Drake says the studios that own the shows profit from these slot machine makeovers, as do some of the individual actors. Toronto-born Howie Mandel is featured prominently on the "Deal or No Deal" slot machine screens and is a winner from the game before anybody sits down to play it.
Still, a series has to be on the air three or four years and well established before hitting the slot jackpot. Rick and Corey Harrison, the father-and-son duo featured on "Pawn Stars," say they were sitting in a Las Vegas restaurant when an executive from Bally overheard their conversation. "They introduced themselves and offered to do a 'Pawn Stars' slot machine right there on the spot," says Rick Harrison.
Drake figures of the 2,500 slot machines at Casino Rama, fewer than 80 are TV- or movie-themed. Casinos in Canada pay more to rent or lease games with TV and movie tie-ins. In the U.S., according to Drake, studios participate directly, getting a cut of the daily take.
The extra cost is usually worth it, says Drake. "The 'Wheel of Fortune' slot machines have been among our most popular for several years. Everyone's familiar with the game before they even sit down."
And yes, women do tend to favour the "Sex and the City" machines.
Since the machines are manufactured in the U.S., Drake says there is no incentive for the companies to build machines based on Canadian TV shows, much as players here might want to try to line up three Blues or plaid jackets on a "Coach's Corner" game.
The closest Canadian content Drake can recall: "Bally made a Playboy game several years ago with the 'Girls of Canada.'"
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.