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Can We Survive Synergy?

6/18/2000 8:00 PM Eastern

We all know the reasons why big media companies swallow up other large media companies: The sum will be larger than the parts, and the inherent synergies for cross-promoting shows, or brands, can be a powerful marketing and retention tool.

On that front, the recently merged Viacom/CBS entity is one to watch very closely, judging from the incredible success CBS is currently enjoying with its offbeat-I'm being kind here-summer newcomer, Survivor.

The show, which will run 16 weeks in total, is building an average of 5 million new viewers each week, and there are 13 more weeks to see if that trend prevails.

The broadcast networks-which now all have cable networks in their family trees-are taking a different strategy this summer, airing new shows instead of reruns. After all, they learned the hard way, watching cable networks steal their thunder in the dog days of summer, building loyal audiences who often do not return to broadcast shows, which are the products of broadcasting's unstable economics.

But all of that is changing this summer, as the traditional broadcasters are becoming less traditional in dealing with their very real and, to date, unsolvable economic problems.

The boldest broadcast summer strategy, and one that will continue throughout the year, comes from CBS, which just recently merged with Viacom and is moving at warp speed.

CBS in the past three weeks has achieved tremendous success with Survivor, a show that in itself would not be as popular as it is, I think, if it didn't have all of the other corporate platforms to support it. Wisely used or not, you be the judge.

CBS-historically the most conservative of the broadcast networks, and saddled with more than its share of older demographics-is gambling big-time on this reality-based game show with a very gritty edge. The show is so hard to describe-and to watch-that its producers coined a new genre for it, "drama-ality."

And CBS has pulled out every promotional tool in its vast corporate arsenal of ammunition. For starters, the show is now heavily promoted on Viacom's MTV as CBS tries to attract younger viewers. And that strategy is working.

When you watch Survivor, it's hard to miss corporate synergy at work. And from my perch, the synergy at work is more interesting than the show itself. Watching Survivor, it's often hard to tell where ads and programming begin and end. Is that good for the advertisers?

In the episode I saw last week, some of the show's sponsors-including Reebok, Ericsson, Bud Light and the U.S. Army-heavily incorporated the hip "survivor" theme.

The show's theme in a nutshell is 16 game-show contestants stranded on a desert island who eliminate one person each week for not being a useful team player. The one who doesn't get knocked off at the end of 16 weeks wins $1 million.

And these advertisers all drum on that survivor theme with their various products such as sneakers, mobile phones, beer and the U.S. Army, of all things. It became a blur for me.

The show is incredibly raw. It's bad cinema veritéor a half-baked morality play.

Last week, the 14 survivors had to hunt for food. Of course, there was none, so they ate rats on-air.

As gross as that sounds, I was more offended by a CBS network promo urging viewers to tune in to The Early Show the next day to see Bryant Gumbel, once an esteemed journalist, interview Stacey, the contestant who got herself eliminated.

As offended as I might be about the total blur of the church-and-state lines at CBS, The Early Show, last in the ratings in its time period, has benefited from its association with Survivor. So we all know that this perilous trend will continue, at least at CBS.

Then in another CBS promo spot, David Letterman, also hurting in the ratings race, said, he would love to do a "celebrity" episode of Survivor, making it sound like one was planned. I think it was supposed to be a joke, but it was confusing.

And of course, there was the plug for CBS.com, where viewers can vote to determine who they think will win the $1 million. When I went up to the Web site the next day, Stacey told her story. It was pretty inane.

Naturally, there was also the obligatory plug for TV Land, which Viacom is trying to grow.

Survivor, an hour-long show, ended with a spot-in my market, at least-for Tums. And I think everyone in these newly merged mega-media companies is going to be popping those babies like candy this summer as they keep a close eye on Survivor-especially Bryant Gumbel, who now has to shill for his new corporate entity.

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