Last October, a story in USA Today
told of a new reality show at CBS that was going to strand 16 people on a deserted island somewhere in the South China Sea.
The same day that the story ran, CBS' publicity department in Los Angeles was swamped by calls from journalists wanting to know more about this new show, dubbed Survivor. Another 50 calls came in that day from radio stations, Access Hollywood
and Entertainment Tonight.
And that was only day one of the publicity effort behind Survivor,
the highest-rated summer series in the history of television, and a show that is rewriting the definition of prime time television fare. Survivor
made the covers of US, Newsweek, Time
and Entertainment Weekly
-not to mention the front pages of The NewYork Times
and The Wall Street Journal.
"The best thing about Survivor, for those of us in the PR business, was it showed how potent publicity can be in a show's campaign," says Chris Ender, CBS Entertainment's senior vice president of communications, who oversaw the show's publicity efforts from Los Angeles. A couple weeks ago, CBS got one of the eight awards for outstanding television public relations from a group called the Television Publicity Executive Committee.
The Los Angeles-based organization, formed in 1985 to help raise the profile (and the salaries) of publicists, comprises the top TV publicity executives, including those of the seven broadcast networks, West Coast cable networks, production studios and at-large members from syndication and private PR firms.
"Over the years, publicity has been a profession that has basically been given no respect," says Shirley Powell, senior vice president of entertainment publicity at NBC and TPEC's vice chairman.
The WB's top publicity executive and former TPEC Chairman Brad Turrell observes that "marketing people had always been looked on as some kind of magical people who create big illusions and who get extremely big money and take tremendous credit for the success of their networks. Publicity people had always been labeled as flacks, and we were only door-to-door salesmen no matter how you dressed us up.
"The reality is, how a company is perceived and how shows are perceived has a great deal to do with what publicists bring to them."