OLN's Survivor Story

During a conference call announcing that Outdoor Life Network had secured the exclusive syndication rights to Survivor, senior vice president of programming and production Marc Fein, riffing off the show's tagline, quipped the service had “outwitted, outplayed and outlasted” other networks in gaining the Mark Burnett entry.

But how much will the reality-genre stalwart outperform OLN's current programming lineup and help draw new viewers to the Comcast Corp.-owned network in the months ahead?

In a move president Gavin Harvey calls “transformative for our network and a perfect fit for our brand,” OLN grabbed the rights to the first 10 seasons of the CBS series, encompassing some 165 episodes, for a four-year period.

Sources, who said fledgling Fox Reality Channel and GSN were in the hunt for Survivor, valued the deal at $65,000 per episode, for a total of some $10.7 million.

The deal, brokered through King World Productions, also gives OLN options to grab the show's 11th and 12th iterations.

Best-known for its coverage of the Tour de France, OLN will premiere its first installment of Survivor July 24, the final day of the cycling competition, which could see Lance Armstrong extend his record to seven consecutive triumphs. The airing will mark the first time the show has been televised outside of its runs on CBS.

OLN's acquisition of Survivor comes as other developments shape cable's take on the reality genre. Fox Reality Channel bowed on May 24, launching in nearly 15 million DirecTV Inc. and Insight Communications Co. homes.

The network, which also has deals with Cox Communications Inc. and Adelphia Communications Corp., expects to finish its first year with more than 20 million subscribers (see story page 56).

Fox Reality joined Reality TV, distributed in the U.S. by EchoStar Communication's Dish Network, in the quest to reach genre fans around the clock.

Executives with another proponent — independent Reality 24/7, headed by ex E! Entertainment Television executive Larry Namer and former USA Network chief Kay Koplovitz — have backed away from their pursuit of a linear network and instead are eyeing other multiplatform opportunities and new strategic backing.


And GSN, which has already dabbled with other off-network reality shows like Average Joe and Dog Eat Dog, is said to be nearing a deal with King World for CBS's The Amazing Race.

Survivor's move to syndication is sure to draw scrutiny from many quarters.

After grabbing 21 spots on broadcast networks' 2004-05 fall slates, the genre's total dropped to 14 for the upcoming season.

Fear Factor, which has helped FX improve its younger demos in a number of dayparts since its acquisition last spring, will not return to NBC's primetime lineup until the middle of next season. But reality shows like Survivor, American Idol and Burnett's The Apprentice rank at the top of the ratings and continue to pull in gigantic numbers.

Still, many have questioned the back-end potential for competition-based reality shows for which the results are already widely known.


Not surprisingly, the show's creator is bullish on the prospects of Survivor thriving in syndication.

“There's no question that [Survivor] will re-run,” Burnett said during the conference call. “Any real fan of Friends knows the storylines. We all know the story lines and we still watch it again.”

In Burnett's view, quality survives. “There's as much crappy dramas and crappy comedies as there are crappy reality,” he said. “On the other hand, there are few shining lights … and the good TV you can do anything with, because people will watch it again. … I foresee a bunch of my shows following this path.”

OLN certainly views Survivor as good TV. Harvey views it as a fourth tentpole for the network, joining its “best-of-class” programming like the Tour de France, the Professional Bull Riding Association and skiing; its hunting and fishing fare; and its original series.

“For nine years, OLN has been a network for doers, outdoor enthusiasts, people who enjoy recreation outside. We want to reach beyond the hard-core enthusiasts and get more people to the network,” Harvey said in an interview. “Survivor is a show with broad appeal that can bring more viewers to OLN and serve as a bridge to our other programming. We believe it will add stickiness to our brand.”

Harvey, Fein and Burnett expect that group would include the show's ardent supporters who want to relive all its past moments; those who came to it after it began its run and want to see the seasons they missed; and newcomers.

Fein said OLN's initial plans were to strip the show from Monday to Thursday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. “Down the line,” he said, the network is also thinking of breaking out themed shows or packages along the lines of “best villains” and “biggest twists.”

Harvey noted OLN would likely air the first two seasons in their entirety before it begins any stunting.


Some observers have suggested that OLN's Survivor syndication deal marks the first major play by Comcast programming czar Jeff Shell since he joined the company earlier this year, while others contend that OLN secured the deal with King World several months ago and was waiting for the announcement to lead into the upcoming Tour de France. Harvey said OLN had been planning and working to acquire for Survivor for a year, but maintained that the “ink has just dried on the deal.”

OLN would not fall prey to over-running Survivor, Harvey added. “It will be well represented at 7 and 10 p.m. on our schedule, and it could air in other dayparts down the road,” he said. “But we want Survivor to bring viewers to our tent and entice them to stick around for [Professional Bull Riding], skiing, field sports and our original series.”

Among the original series that OLN believes in are: the Emmy-nominated biography show Fearless, which profiles famous outdoor faces from Bethany Hamilton to Smarty Jones; E-Force, tracking Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officials as they protect the Florida Keys; Outdoor Investigations, which solves some of nature's mysteries and examines environmental mishaps; and The Best & Worst of Tred Barta, centering on the fishing and hunting exploits of renowned outdoorsman Tred Barta.

During 2004, OLN, which is in 64 million homes, averaged a 0.2 rating in primetime. Year-to-date, the network has matched that performance. Average primetime viewership is up 16% to 148,000 through May.

Harvey acknowledged there is an “over/under going on internally” about the ratings projection, but wouldn't disclose the estimates.

“There have been a lot of questions about how reality shows repeat. This is a risk but one we think is well worth taking. I guess we'll find that out over the next four years. The show draws about 20 million viewers per week [on CBS]. If we can get a fraction of that we'll see a big upside,” said Harvey.

Asked about ad sales potential, Harvey said OLN's sales force has just begun going to market with the show. They had yet to have discussions about categories that could be affected by product placements — from Pontiac and Reebok, among others — within the series.


Elsewhere, Reality 24/7 dismissed rumors that it had shuttered its business. Instead, the network, which has postponed several launch dates and has carriage deals with Insight and Mediacom Communications Corp., has scaled back its plans.

In an e-mail response, Namer indicated that the “competitive situation” has changed and “a linear [channel] focused solely on reality is not something an independent should attempt.”

“We have not closed the company nor have we abandoned our thoughts to do multiplatform content that embraces the reality fan base,” he wrote. “We are reformulating our plans and also in talks with a strategic partner.”

Namer added that video on demand would be a centerpiece of the group's plans going forward.