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July 28, 2000

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Survivor Finale: Big Bonanza for CBS Affiliates

       Hopefully, you've seen the estimates for the financial rewards CBS will reap from the night of Aug. 23, when it turns over an entire evening to the finale of Survivor, including a one-hour town meeting pre-game show.
       The $26 million gross CBS is expected to peel off this gift from Sweden may be a shade less because of package deals to advertisers but, take my word for it: this is an Olympic year but the finish of Survivor will be the most profitable non-Olympic summer evening for a network in the history of television.
       Survivor won't draw M*A*S*H or "Who Shot J.R.?" level numbers. However, I would not be surprised at a 23-27 rating for the finish, unless Richard Hatch is in it (heaven forbid, I'm going to order up an entire bottle of Maalox if we're subjected to that guy in his birthday suit again, digitized or not).
       However, in addition to the network, the folks who are really salivating over this prospect are the general managers and sales managers of CBS affiliates across the U.S.
       To understand why, let me give you a simple explanation. Barely a third of CBS local stations win their late local news ratings. A big factor is the much stronger lead-ins from ABC's newsmagazines and NBC's beloved scripted entertainment in th efinal hour of prime time. One of the reasons some ABC news directors have pleaded for at least one Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to air from 10-11 p.m. (ET) is they want the lead-in numbers to their late news.
       A less than hidden reason why CBS has been reluctant to scrap The Price Is Right, despite its older demographics, is Bob Barker draws such huge total numbers in the 11-noon slot in the East, he delivers a massive audience to midday local newscasts. In many Eastern markets, the 12 noon is the only newscast a CBS station wins because of the massive TPIR lead-in.
       Already, local CBS sales departments are actively in high gear, attempting to sell local and regional spots at higher prices than ever for a late August. Many of them are attempting to pitch advertisers package deals which include commercials in their late local newscasts that evening, also at substantially increased rates. In some instances, if you want one, you have to take the other. One affiliate sales manager has told me he fully expects to get 40 per cent more revenue for that evening than in any single night this summer. Outdoor shops, camping stores, travel agencies, state parks and clothing stores which feature island wear are being heavily targeted. Frankly, Outward Bound, L.L. Bean and Land's End would be smart to advertise in key markets across the country----and, as I have previously said, any of them should hire Gretchen Cordy as a spokesperson.
       I'll let you in on another thing happening. Already, CBS affiliate station news directors are being presented with suggestions on how to produce the opening segment of that Aug. 23 late local newscast to hold onto viewers coming out of the Survivor finale. I have experience in that arena. In 1983, I was assistant news director at WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C., a top 35 market where the revenue potential was huge coming out of the 2 1/2-hour M*A*S*H finale. That still ranks as the most-watched single episode of a weekly series in history and we raked in a bundle.
       I also had a dual role as executive producer of our newscasts. So, for that February evening (and we were in the midst of a critical sweep period), I planned the following segments: 1) a reporter watching the finale with a family in which the father had been in a M*A*S*H unit in the Korean War; 2) a live report from people who had just watched from a local restaurant/bar (I stopped doing the bar live shots after this one after making a strong editorial committment to anti-DUI campaigns. For one thing, they're a cliche; for another, we looked awfully hypocritical editorializing for strong drunk driving laws and then doing reaction stories with drunks); 3) a report on the windup of an all-day M*A*S*H blood drive which we had co-sponsored with the local blood center; and 4) yours truly, your friendly television expert, with an analysis on how M*A*S*H would ultimately stack up in television history.
       We held them that night. Typically, we averaged a 13 rating at the time for our late local news. That evening, we scored a 22 and opened with a 24 in those first 10 minutes. The sales department was overjoyed, as they sold the spots projecting a 20 rating.
       I finally left television news in 1993 but if I were still running a television newsroom, I'll tell you what I'd do on the evening of the finale to hold onto the audience. I won't even charge any CBS affiliate news director for stealing any of the ideas (besides, they all are getting suggestion sheets a mile long from both the network and their consultants on what to do Aug. 23).
       First, I wouldn't go to a bar---all you get with bar reaction stories are loud-mouthed, semi-soused creatures who are only good for a laugh. I'd probably put together a group of college-age and outdoors-oriented people of various age brackets and have them in a studio or a large meeting hall or seminar room taping away at their reactions for most of the show, then come back live and get some quick takes from selected ones as to why this show was so compelling to watch.
       Next, I'd prepare a pre-packaged report at the closest ropes course or outdoor excursion location where either executives, church groups, or college-age people go on retreats for these "trust"-type games. No, it's not like Survivor, in that you aren't going for $1 million....but it has elements of people attempting to survive in a non-home environment.
       Third, I'd get footage from Outward Bound and do a piece with local travel agents on the cost of going on such an excursion and talk to some local outdoor experts on what one needs to prepare to do, both physically and emotionally, to survive a week-long outing of this ilk (which ends with a "solo," isolated overnight).
       I'd talk to a psychologist (probably pre-packaged) about what the adjustment may be for these people once the memory and celebrity identity fades and, finally, I'd bring somebody like me on live who could analyze what this ultimately means for the television industry as a trend or a passing fad.
       For stations who have a "ten minutes at 10, or 11 at 11" format, you could easily hold onto the viewers, much as you would in a post-game show. In fact, that's the mentality most intuitive news directors will take. Their first 10-12 minutes of their newscast that night (unless they've had a fire to ravage their downtown or a weather disaster) should be viewed as the equivalent of a sports post-game show to keep the aftermath of a major television event in the viewers' minds.
       Serious journalism? No. Does it disturb me to see local television news do this? Yes. Some of my former colleagues, including a genial man I respect enormously---Les Sachs of the NBC affiliate in Quincy, Ill.---refuse to follow this pattern. The night of the Seinfeld finale, Les did 45 seconds on his late newscast and went onto other news.
       However, this is going to be a major television event, at least for summer programming. More people will watch the Survivor finale (and, mind you, I still don't care for the show or the format) than any first-run summer episode, short of The Fugitive finale in 1967. When you're a CBS affiliate and you don't win your 10:00 or 11:00 news ratings often, you go for broke. That night, everything is dollars, dollars, dollars. Watch on Aug. 23 and see if your local CBS station doesn't follow at least some portion of this blueprint.
**************************
       POST-GAME NOTES: Okay, gang, I'm compelled to say a couple of things, based on what is my most frequent e-mail question and to a late development. The Price Is Right reruns are apparently not returning to Game Show Network. I am not privy to the insides of the difficulties; however, some large differences exist between GSN's owner Sony and Pearson TV, which owns the rights to TPIR and those differences are unlikely to be resolved. The Price Is Right package is a separate negotiation from the other Goodson-Todman shows. Literally, hundreds of you want to know why you are not being listened to by GSN. I wish I had a more optimistic answer because many of you are emotional about this. I've even had hate and profane mail directed at me, personally, about this because GSN licenses my news items for its website and some users believe I am making these programming decisions. Believe me, I absolutely agree with all of you who believe enough is enough with the numbers of The Newlywed Game reruns. Sadly, GSN has been much less viewer-friendly in the comment department since the network was resoundingly blasted at its old winnie@gameshownet.com (don't try that one, it doesn't exist any more) address when it released the Goodson-Todman package for six months in 1997. Viewers won that battle but GSN became less accessible. I will endeavor to obtain some kind of e-mail address for you to send comments but I have to tell you, they are unlikely to move this rock.....On another note, the news of the virtual end to GSN's Sunday Night in Black and White, with the exception of the bone of the 10-11 hour is plainly the beginning of the end of the classic Goodson-Todman library on the network. This doesn't take brain surgery. This may have launched GSN in 1994 but as much as many of us have a fond and loyal clinging to these shows, they don't draw the demographics Sony or cable systems want to be more appealing to advertisers. I know a number of you are younger than me but when you reach my age (45), you don't matter any more to most advertisers. Black-and-white doesn't sell and neither do fond memories of a pioneer in television. I hope most of you have good tape libraries because you're not likely to see most of these until video-on-demand is eventually available....Jenna Lewis offered a refreshingly pleasant and engaging interview on WGCL-TV in Atlanta Thursday about her Survivor experience.....In answer to some requests, we are attempting to determine some way to archive the daily news pages. However, we are running perilously close to maximum in space with our existing ISP and unless we can get some ad support to help with the costs, we aren't going to be able to afford a permanent archive. We've had several offers of people to trade banners but that doesn't help at all financially....Here's a fun trivia question: which of these game show hosts did not make an appearance on Marlo Thomas' That Girl sitcom?
a) Tom Kennedy   b) Merv Griffin   c) Carl Reiner   d) Monty Hall   e) Geoff Edwards

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