Betting on Syndicated Reality

A year ago, Outdoor Life Network (OLN) President Gavin Harvey drafted his goals for the network—best-known for showing the Tour de France as well as hunting, fishing and rodeo—on a cocktail napkin. Topping the list was acquiring reality hit Survivor.

The thinking was that OLN needed to expand its audience beyond hard-core outdoor enthusiasts. Or, as Harvey puts it, “appeal not just to doers but to viewers.”

So the network's acquisitions team set its sights on Mark Burnett's Survivor and, after a year-long campaign, snagged exclusive syndication rights to all 10 incarnations from King World, with an option for the next two. The deal set OLN back some $10 million—hefty even for a Comcast-owned network.

So far, it's working out. OLN, in 63 million homes, launched Survivor July 24 with a commercial-free episode. The episode earned a 0.92 household rating, the highest ever for non-Tour de France programming in OLN's history. Re-airings that night earned decent 0.22 and 0.50 ratings.

While hit reality shows are proving popular with cable networks (VH1 recently bought America's Next Top Model, and GSN just debuted The Amazing Race), they'll have to wait and see if the ratings hold up in syndication. After all, serialized, contest-driven reality shows like Survivor hold less suspense when the fans already know who won.

Cable networks can take little comfort from Fear Factor, which FX bought in 2003 for $250,000 an episode. The first prime time network reality show bought for syndication, Fear started strong but dropped from an average 639,000 viewers to 573,000 at 6 p.m. year-to-year.

Harvey says he had “modest goals” for Survivor repeats: “It doesn't have to do the blockbuster ratings it did on CBS to justify itself.”

Just how much reality shows will fetch on the backend also remains to be seen. Compared with the $1 million price tags some dramas carry, Amazing Race and Survivor are relatively modest purchases at $55,000 and $65,000 an episode. But by buying full runs of several seasons, GSN and OLN ended up shelling out $6 million and $10 million, respectively. For small networks, such sums could take years to pay back.

With franchises like The Bachelor and The Apprentice yet to be bought, other emerging cable networks might try to mobilize their resources to score a reality show they think will put them on the map. Just don't go overboard with the spending, cautions Fox Reality General Manager/COO David Lyle: “There's no sense in the short or long term of overpaying. Not only do you buy badly but you skew the market and spoil it for yourself in the future.”