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September 23, 2000

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George Is Gone, Survivor's Sinking, Regis Is Rolling

       George is gone and, hopefully, so is the hair dye. Survivor is proving human in the reruns. Millionaire still has plenty of strength, even opposite the Olympics.

       For you who have been directed to an incorrect link the last few days, here's a hint----Megabite Murray now has us back together. Now we can get back to the business of focusing on what's been happening the last two weeks.
       First, the merciful end approaches to Big Brother. A number of critics, including a good friend of mine, were rooting for George Boswell to go for several weeks. Frankly, I liked George, his energy and his mischief. His crazy outfits and the Brittany Petros-inspired hair dye made him the new millennium's Max Klinger. Yet, I honestly don't know what possessed him to go that route, other than the stircraziness of being in that shack. If George had maintained the kindly, level-headed father figure persona he assumed early, he'd have nailed the $500,000.
       However, have you noticed the total absence of a groundswell for the finish? When CBS opted to slash the finale back to one hour and slot it on, of all things, Friday night, that was an act of surrender if ever you've seen one. One TV station news executive called to ask if I would be available for analysis after the finale. I said, "Sure...but why would you want to do that?" If you care, my odds are on Jamie Kern unless she's ousted Wednesday night. If it's her and two guys, I'm betting the voting cancels out the fellows and throws the big jackpot to Miss Washington USA.
       As for Survivor's performance in repeats, few people are as shocked as I as to how low the ratings have dipped. A 3.4 Thursday night would have been unthinkable, even against the Olympics, a week before the encores started. I was projecting an average 7 rating. CBS shot for a 7.5. My friend Marc Berman of Mediaweek stuck his neck out for an average 9.5.
       What's gone wrong here? Nothing, really, other than about three things. One, this was too soon after the original run to turn around a repeat cycle. Berman wrote last week CBS would have been better advised to save this for Jan. 15-29 in advance of the Australian sequel. Two, Survivor is proving it has more soap opera appeal than game show appeal; hence, my term game opera. Accordingly, the summer hit is following the same track as Dallas did nearly 20 years ago. After the 1980-81 season, reruns for Dallas---television's number one show at the time---crashed. Shows with continuing storylines do not have strong repeat appeal. Survivor is hitting the same skid. Third, I contend we're already experiencing a bit of burnout from the saturation of the contestants. I've seen so much of these people in so many places, I almost believe I'm going to run into Sue Hawk in my bathroom when I have to get up during the night. It's one thing to capitalize on a monster hit. It's another thing for overexposure and I'm one of the few who believes we're seeing too much of the castaways too quickly.
       Finally, have you noticed how almost no one is writing about the performance of WWTBAM against the Olympics? Aside from Monday Night Football, Regis has the only show in television which has registered double digits opposite the Sydney Games. To maintain that during a rather sluggish 90-minute edition where so many crashed during second-tier questions Thursday night was an amazing tribute to the loyalty of this game's audience. When the fall season starts, Millionaire will indeed have an older audience but it will be loyal and steady. The show may not generate the same water cooler conversation as it did in the summer of '99 but that talk has now shifted to the living room and the coffee table.
       Most television hits which have been labeled instant phenomena maintain that level for about a year, then find their loyal niche following which can carry it for several seasons. The Beverly Hillbillies had every critic writing about it (negatively) in 1962 and had virtually the entire country talking about it. For 99 straight weeks, Jed Clampett was number one in the Nielsens, then settled into a strong, steady run for seven more years. All in the Family had the offices buzzing in its first two years. Archie Bunker then settled into his loyal niche after the 1973 season with much less media attention. Even America's Funniest Home Videos, which had a sudden rise to the top in the late '80s, had respectable, profitable audiences until its unwise attempt to turn it into The Daisy Fuentes Show in its last two seasons.
       The Millionaire train could come to a halt next season but I seriously doubt it. I'm betting the four episodes will regularly fill the top ten or fifteen all year and you'll see some number one finishes, even though the writers are now ignoring the show.
       A key to restudy is what happened with The $64,000 Question (other than its association with scandal). For its first 16 months, the quiz had America hammerlocked and the nation's top newspaper writers. Not until the big city scribes made an unofficial agreement to stop following the winners so closely week after week did the buzz cool. Question still finished fourth for the season in its second year and had a top 20 finish in year three before the entire house of cards fell.
       You won't see quite as much media attention about Survivor in January and the uniqueness of that show makes it vulnerable to the Saturday Night Live syndrome. Since its premiere in 1975, a number of individual stars have periodically emerged from that show but virtually none of the total ensembles have generated the media focus and public embrace as the original cast.
       What we all ought to be indebted to Michael Davies and Mark Burnett for is to give us back what so many of us have felt disenfranchised from on network television for three decades. Remember three years ago when the biggest thing we had to talk about was Summer Sanders becoming the host of Figure It Out? What we have today is not perfect with network television and game shows or game operas in prime time but I'll take it over the alternative of 1971-99 any day.

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