Island Shocker," screams the headline on the story at one Web site. A volcano, you may be thinking. Perhaps a tidal wave wreaking havoc on some remote isle.
But no, it's even more shocking than that: Joel has been voted off the desert isle off the coast of Borneo that is the setting for the smash CBS summer hit Survivor.
And the "Island Shocker" headline appeared last Thursday on CBS' own Survivor Web site after contestant Joel Klug, seen as the potential grand-prize winner in some viewer polls, got the hook.
The Web site is just one part of a ubiquitous publicity, promotion and marketing blitz that CBS began 10 months ago, six months before the show even hit the air.
By design, it's difficult for consumers to go a day without being exposed to one of the myriad promotional impressions being generated by the campaign itself and by the press-both inside and outside CBS.
The cost of generating all the positive buzz has been surprisingly low. (At least in dollars-word is, the public relations staff assigned to the show has been working 14-hour days seven days a week for the past three months). CBS officials declined to comment on the program's ad budget, but sources say the network spent about $1.5 million on advertising to launch Survivor, while the total value of the advertising and on-air promotion is estimated at $5 million.
By comparison, CBS sold the advertising in the show to eight sponsors and is now selling additional spots at roughly $300,000 per 30-second unit. The network expects those rates to double for the final episode.
"It is a brilliant strategy," says Jack Myers, the New York-based media and marketing consultant.
Clearly, corporate synergy within Viacom was critical in promoting the launch of Survivor six weeks ago. And Survivor, in turn, is the main vehicle being used to launch CBS' second summer voyeuristic series, Big Brother, which debuted last week to big numbers.
During the last week to 10 days leading up to the launch of Survivor in June, almost one of every two network promotion spots was used to hype Survivor, says George Schweitzer, executive vice president, marketing and communications, CBS Television.
But it wasn't just the network that promoted the show. All of the 165 Infinity radio stations have aired promotions and or advertising for Survivor, as have all the owned-and-operated TV stations and MTV and VH-1, the two Viacom-owned music channels. Infinity's huge outdoor-advertising division has also been used to get out the word about the show.
"We had a carefully crafted media plan within all the properties," says Schweitzer. "Everything clicked in for this, and it was great to see the result."
Schweitzer says the effort is a "classic example of synergy success." And while observers outside the company can't help believing that the synergy was directed from on high, Schweitzer insists that "nobody was ordered to do it. Everyone thought this was a great product to get involved with."
And with ratings like Survivor and Big Brother are getting, that's not too hard to believe. There's even some built-in synergy to the show itself: Survivor host Jeff Probst is also the host of VH-1's Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy game show.
It is also CBS' biggest summer promotional platform for the new season. All the new shows will get promoted in Survivor and Big Brother. "Our share of [audience] is so much further than the other guys," says Schweitzer. "They're doing 5 ratings, and we're doing 15s." (Of course, NBC has its own huge platform coming up, closer to the start of the new season: the Sydney Olympics.)
Says Schweitzer: "The ripple effect is enormous. Letterman was promoted in Big Brother and Survivor and he does his best [ratings] weeks."
He adds that all of the owned TV stations and many of the affiliates are tying into Survivor with promotions, or news stories. And dozens of radio stations are staging their own scaled-down Survivor-type contests, where the stakes range from $1,000 to a new car.
On the TV side, the approaches vary widely. KPIX-TV, the owned station in San Francisco has hired Survivor contestant Stacy Stillman (voted off in the early going) to serve as an-air "commentator" two nights a week for the duration of the show's summer run.
Stillman appears on Wednesday's 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts as well as the Thursday edition of Evening Magazine on the station.
WBBM-TV Chicago has opted for different approach. Carol Marin, who took over wbbm-tv's late news earlier this year determined to be cross-promo- and plug-free, and says her newscast has not done any pieces that might be characterized as promotional toward CBS' new reality programs.
"Not one," she stresses. "We did one story, weeks before Survivor aired, that was a critical analysis of this trend toward voyeurism-on other networks [as well as on CBS]. We discussed whether this is healthy, sociologically, or whether it's not. We did not provide any programming details. And there have been no local tie-ins." (It could be tempting: One of the housemates on Big Brother is a roofer from Rockford, Ill., an hour's drive from Chicago.)
Despite overlap between news and entertainment at the network level, Ted Canova, news director at CBS-owned WCCO-TV Minneapolis says he received no edicts or guidelines from the network to promote the new series.
But these shows don't need any extra promotion," says Canova, noting that the front page of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune addressed the new TV phenomenon.
Indeed, the network's press blitz launched back in October is credited with creating just about all the early buzz on the show. The show made the covers of Time, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and TV Guide (twice), among others.
Survivor contestants granted CBS the right to approve and coordinate all of their press and promotional appearances concerning the program.
And the network has set up a process where each contestant, once voted off the island, does his or her first interview the following day (Thursday) on CBS' The Early Show. Last Thursday, for example, Klug spent six minutes being debriefed by Jane Clayson at 8:20 a.m. and then fielded e-mail queries from viewers for another five minutes after a break. He also did interviews with Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, VH-1, E!, WCBS-TV, Inside Edition, MSNBC, 30 to 40 CBS affiliates and a dozen or so radio stations. Later in the show, a psychologist discussed the weirdness that awaits the inhabitants of the Big Brother house.
Klug also did an appearance on David Letterman. In all cases, Letterman gets the first late-night appearance. "Essentially, these people have now become celebrities," says Ender. "And you never want the stars of the network to pop up on competing networks."
Radio has also been a big promotion factor. Ender estimates that Survivor host Probst, executive producer Burnett and various CBS executives have done some 700 radio interviews since October. On the day of launch, Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Television, went on the Howard Stern Show to talk about Survivor.
The network has taken some flack for crossing the line-however one defines that line-between good journalism and journalism that serves as huckster for entertainment shows.
Last Wednesday, 48 Hours did a show on fame and what some people will do to achieve it. Prominently featured in the story were interviews with two Survivor contestants.
There are Early Show tie-ins to both Survivor and Big Brother. Early Show news anchor Julie Chen serves as the host of the Thursday-night edition of Big Brother, where the goings-on in the house are discussed.
"It's was as if some internal memo went out to all department heads within CBS: 'Make sure you mention Big Brother on Wednesday, or else!'" wrote the New York Post's Adam Buckman, who called CBS' promotion on news shows "sickening." Writing about Chen's role on Big Brother, The New York Times critic Julie Salamon opined, "Her credibility may never recover from this."
While some purists don't like the tie-ins, Myers says, "it's a valid news story," being covered by CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and other news outlets. "If other news organizations are legitimizing it as a news story why shouldn't their own news operation have the right to take it a step further? This is not just a TV phenomenon; it's a cultural phenomenon in many ways, and it's defining a lot about society."