How big is Survivor? At a Democratic National Convention fundraiser in Los Angeles last week, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton begged CBS Television President Les Moonves to clue her in to the winner. He wouldn't budge. "Oh come on, who am I going to tell?" Mrs. Clinton asked.
The answer-supposedly only a couple dozen executives inside CBS know it in advance-is coming this Wednesday, as CBS is set to end the three-month-long saga with a three-hour send-off. That includes a two-hour finale, where one of the four remaining survivors will be awarded the $1 million prize, and a one-hour reunion show hosted by CBS News personality Bryant Gumbel.
Survivor ratings have done nothing but improve since its June debut and advertisers are lining up to get in on the last night of the series as though it were the Super Bowl.
Advertising industry sources say CBS could reap between $40 million and $50 million in advertising revenue from the final three hours of Survivor-not to mention priceless promotion for the network's fall lineup. Thirty-second spots for the finale are going at $600,000 and up. That's about $100,000 more than an average 30-second commercial during an original episode of NBC's Friends and about $250,000 more than ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is taking in during the regular season, according to sources.
"This has gone beyond our wildest dreams," says CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem. "It was something that caught our attention as a concept and we thought it was worth the risk of running during the summer. But as it has gone on, it has gone beyond anything we could have expected."
Tellem and fellow CBS executives are amazed the secret ending has not slipped out, since many of the contestants have been back in the United States for more than a month now. But the Nielsen numbers keep rolling onward. In its last regular installment (Aug. 16), as Dr. Sean was kicked off the island, close to 29 million viewers tuned in and Survivor outdrew all of the other network competitors combined by nearly 8 million viewers.
Many advertising executives were clamoring to get in on the action last week, imagining what ratings could come with the finale.
"There has never been anything like this in August," says Paul Schulman, president of Schulman-Advanswers NY. "The only thing that could get numbers like this would be the Summer Olympics. If you were introducing a movie on Friday night, could you think of a better place to be than Survivor on Wednesday night?"
Adds Francis Anderson, communications strategist at TWA/Chiat Day,"This is a weekly show that's attracting numbers equal or better than that of event TV. Plus, Survivor has been able to pull in that elusive young demographic, something CBS wasn't doing too much of beforehand."
When Survivor debuted in June, CBS had an exclusive nine advertisers involved in the series, including Reebok and Dr. Scholl's. Thirty-second spots went for about $100,000 sources say. But more recently, with the ratings spiral, advertisers were paying close to $400,000. A certain number of advertising spots were left unfilled at the outset of the season and have been selling out weekly since July.
The first nine advertisers have been given the first dibs on exclusive advertising spots for the second Survivor series, which is slated to debut Jan. 28 from the Australian outback.
"Next season's asking ad rate will be much more than this summer's regular episodes," says Schulman. "And the final episode of the second version will also be a premium price as well."
The question is how CBS keeps viewers excited about Survivor 2, when it won't run until after the Super Bowl.
They'll hype it early and often, of course.
"At the end of the broadcast Wednesday, you are going to get your first glimpse of what's to come in Australia," says Tellem, referring to Survivor host Jeff Probst's report from the next Survivor site. "There is going to be a lot of Survivormania continuing. There may be a time when it isn't on everybody's minds, but believe me, by the end of the Super Bowl, which we're televising, people will be preparing for it."-Susanne Ault contributed to this story