CBS primes its prime time

CBS' summertime experiment may just be the fountain of youth it has been looking for. The oldest-skewing broadcast network of them all created the highest-rated summer series ever with Survivor, attracting boatloads of young viewers to watch Richard Hatch manipulate a million-dollar payday.

For those two hours last Wednesday, CBS' lead over the other broadcast networks in adults 18-34 was a denture-dropping 277%. Though there aren't statistics for all of last week, for the week of Aug. 16, when Survivor aired its penultimate episode, the CBS median age dropped to 48.4 years old. (For the prime time year, CBS is the "geeziest" network of them all, with a median age of 53.2.)

Old age is CBS' age-old problem, so the Survivor turnaround leaves the network folks giddy. "What does it say about a network that a 72-year-old guy in a loincloth attracts a younger audience?" Late Show host David Letterman asked last week, referring to Rudy, the grumpy ex-Navy Seal who was a Survivor finalist.

For CBS, going below 50 in terms of its median-age viewer during the upcoming season would be quite an accomplishment. "Survivor and, to some extent, Big Brother have enabled CBS to bring down its median age to a level it hasn't been since 1995, and I think it's very significant," says TN Media's Steve Sternberg.

CBS has stumbled before. Remember Central Park West, the 1995 soap drama starring Mariel Hemingway that was the network's disastrous attempt to cater to the 18-34s? Trouble was, none of them were watching CBS to know the show even existed. And soon it didn't.

Not this time.

"When you bring a whole bunch of new people, who typically don't watch your network, and promote a lot of these new shows, there is a good chance it's going to carry over into the fall," says Sternberg. "And especially when the second installment of Survivor comes on in January, it should have a big impact again on lowering CBS' median age."

Adds Mike Greco, vice president at Omnicom's Optimum Media Direction division, "Now it's essential for them to develop some shows for a younger audience at midseason when Survivor returns to keep this going."

CBS executives say: Take a look. They're trying.

"We're always looking to get a little younger. I think if you look at plenty of our shows on our fall schedule-Fugitive, CSI and That's Life-obviously we are looking to get younger," says Kelly Kahl, senior vice president of programming and planning at CBS Television. "But we are not deviating from the mission that's been all along, which is to try and get a little bit younger without alienating the core audience. Survivor is the ultimate example of that."

For the just-completed 1999-2000 season, the median age of CBS' prime time audience (53.2 for those older readers who may have forgotten by now) was nearly 20 years older than Fox's at 34.2 years. NBC was at a 45.2, ABC a 43.3 and The WB and UPN were much lower.

CBS' signature series, 60 Minutes, attracted viewers who were nearly 57 years old (Diagnosis Murder was oldest at 57.8). The network's two youngest-skewing shows were Nash Bridges (48.2) and King of Queens (48.5).

The last time CBS' median age was below 50 was during the 1992-93 season when Knots Landing and Northern Exposure were on the air.

But each week this summer, Survivor was bringing down CBS' median age, and the median age for Survivor itself was down to 39.5 for the Aug. 16 episode.

"We already know that we are well ahead of our normal pacing in terms of awareness and intent to view our new shows," says David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president of planning and research. "And we are particularly well ahead in young people and our normal pattern of awareness, which for CBS would be higher for the older viewers vs. the younger audience. We are in a much stronger position going into the fall than we have been in past years."

Last Wednesday's numbers had CBS checking the old corporate pacemaker. Some 51.7 million viewers tuned in, making Survivor the second-most-watched show for the 1999-2000 season, surpassing The Academy Awards (49.6 million) and trailing only the Super Bowl (88.5 million). The Survivor reunion show, hosted by CBS News personality Bryant Gumbel, kept 39 million viewers up until 11 p.m. ET/PT, according to Nielsen Media Research. The final half hour of the finale averaged just under 60 million viewers.

CBS used the crowd to announce it will rerun Survivor from the first day through last night's finale, head-to-head against NBC's Summer Olympics coverage next month, spicing them up with interviews with the castaways and behind-the-scenes commentary.

And it's only five months until Survivor 2 comes back to CBS, this time from the Australian outback. CBS executives have now narrowed the list of 49,000 potential contestants to 800, and that figure will be pared down to 48 in the next few weeks. In September, physical exams and interviews with shrinks will result in a new batch of 16 instant-media creations.