CBS is standing firmly behind its decision not to cut advertising rates for the coming season, despite NBC's acknowledgment that it is reducing prices by about 5 percent and reports that ABC is following suit. CBS spokesman Dana McClintock told Friday's New York Daily News, "Look at the performance of last year with the number one show Survivor and the number one new show in CSI. ... If you look at our growth on Thursday night and you look at the fact that many of the buyers and pundits felt that our schedule was the strongest, we feel it justifies the prices we are asking for."
Now that the major networks have released their fall 2001 schedules, all it takes is a brief glance at the Thursday night brackets to realize this year's hottest rivalry--CBS' Survivor and CSI vs. NBC's Must-See TV lineup--will ignite yet again come October.
CBS appears to be riding a wave of confidence following this season's consistent victory over NBC's Thursday night sitcoms. Survivor scored on average 10 million more viewers than Friends per week, partly due in part to several Friends reruns in March, according to Nielsen Media Research. As a result, the Eye Network is unflinchingly pitting this fall Survivor and CSI against NBC's Friends, Will & Grace, Just Shoot Me and the new sitcom Inside Schwartz.
CBS' decision to keep the Thursday night battle alive has nothing to do with a rivalry with NBC, but has everything to do with constantly improving that night's ratings, said CBS publicist Dana McClintock.
"We're shooting for Thursday nights to not be considered 'bowling night' at CBS, as it's been considered in the past," he said. "We want to increase our viewership on that night--something we've accomplished dramatically this year so far."
In addition to increasing viewership, CBS and NBC are looking to increase advertising revenues this fall. If they can, of course, remains to be seen, but if the spring 2001 advertising payouts are repeated, NBC could find themselves beneath CBS on the revenue-generating totem pole. Ad rates for Friends this spring actually dropped moderately following the February sweeps, which saw Survivor well ahead in the ratings. Conversely, CBS received a cool $12 million apiece from each of its nine core sponsors, including, Bud Light, Cingular, Doritos, Mountain Dew, Pontiac Aztek, Target and Visa.
CBS' McClintock understands the need to increase the network's Thursday night bottom line, pointing out that-despite the sheer entertainment value of its shows-in the end, money matters.
"[Thursday's] a crucial night financially," McClintock said. "We've increased viewership in our key demographic on Thursdays by triple, so we're excited not only about Survivor and CSI next fall, but also the new drama The Agency, which will follow those shows at 10 p.m."
And herein lies NBC's ace in the hole: the 10 p.m. slot. ER continues to be a ratings juggernaut-the highest-rated drama on TV-balancing out the CBS-NBC rivalry this spring.
"While Survivor certainly has helped improve CBS' ratings, NBC continues to dominate Thursday nights," NBC spokesman Mike Nelson said.
While both networks sound clearly confident in their Thursday night lineups this fall, a hidden threat does exist to both: Fox's Temptation Island 2, which will air Thursdays at 9 p.m., against CBS' CSI and NBC's Will & Grace and Just Shoot Me. Witnessing the success a reality show has had against NBC's Must-See TV gang, Fox president of entertainment Gail Berman told The Hollywood Reporter that it's time for her network to get aggressive. Fox attracted only 3.9 million viewers on Thursday nights.
"We're going to be bold," she said.
As the major networks scramble to attract viewers with reality-based programming amid fears of a Writers Guild of America strike, they're also attracting criticism for new corporate-sponsored business practices.
ABC's upcoming reality show The Runner, which challenges viewers to piece together clues as to the whereabouts of the title character, is taking product placement to new heights … and, possibly, new lows. According to The New York Times, the reality series' content will be largely based upon which corporate sponsors shell out the most money for onscreen promotion.
"We've already had a number of people approach us," said Mike Shaw, president of sales for ABC, in a Times interview. "We would absolutely love to hear the advertisers' ideas."
Pepsi and McDonald's have expressed a serious interest in sponsoring the show.
The precedent for such programming decisions has already been set by competitors: official sponsors of CBS' Survivor: The Australian Outback - such as Target, Pontiac, Doritos and Mountain Dew - each paid a whopping $12 million to gain exposure on the show. Accordingly, CBS executives are not quick to criticize ABC's decision to allow corporate sponsors to guide The Runner's content.
"Reality shows offer increased opportunities for product placement over scripted programs," CBS spokesman Dana McClintock told Hollywood.com on Tuesday. "Of course, we only do this with one show, Survivor, but this exposure is kept organic to the show itself. There's a well-defined significance to our usage of products in the show - such as the prizes given out in Reward Challenges."
Despite the controversy surrounding The Runner's apparent selling out to corporate America, McClintock said he's not initially critical of ABC's decision.
"It's really too early to see if The Runner is keeping its sponsorships organic to their show. We'll have to wait and see," he said.
When asked if ABC is simply scrambling to find revenue streams amid the possible Writers Guild of America strike, both McClintock and ABC publicists declined to comment to Hollywood.com.
The Runner is scheduled to debut in September on ABC.