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CBS has pick of winners
March 14, 2001: 5:31 p.m. ET

Network must move top-rated Survivor program to make room for NCAA tourney
By Staff Writer Chris Isidore
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - It's the original survivor program.

Viewers watch as their favorite or least favorite contestants test themselves against each other. Losers leave the program at the end of the evening. Winners get to come back for more of the same another night.

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The nation is expected to tune in in overwhelming numbers when the competition drops to two contestants, with the winner sure to grace the cover of newspapers and national magazines.

But the show that CBS will air Thursday evening is not Survivor, the "reality TV" show from the Australian outback that has become the nation's most popular show and the network's most profitable program in memory. It's the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, in which some of the nation's best college teams are likely to score convincing victories over Cinderella challengers.

And this year, for the first time, CBS had some difficult decisions to make about scheduling the early games of the tournament it has broadcast since 1981.

For NCAA, CBS must break up a winning team

In past years, Thursday night was a virtual ratings wasteland on CBS as well as any other network other than NBC. NBC's powerhouse Thursday programming has rarely been challenged in recent decades, with current shows such as Friends and ER, and former shows including Seinfeld, Cheers and Cosby.

A year ago the CBS lineup included shows like Diagnosis Murder and the news magazine 48 Hours, programs which had weak ratings to begin with, and even weaker numbers among the younger male viewers that advertisers crave.

graphicBroadcasting even the less-popular early games of the NCAA gave the network a boost because of the younger demographics, even though overall ratings on the first night of the tournament last year were a relatively modest 6.2 for the first game and 5.5 for the late game.

But since the beginning of February, the CBS hit Survivor has allowed it to beat Friends in the 8 p.m. time slot, and CBS's new crime drama CSI has won the 9 p.m. slot against established NBC hits Will and Grace and Just Shoot Me. Last week Survivor's 17.1 rating and CSI's 14.4 rating made them the week's two most-watched shows.

But Survivor has been moved to Wednesday night for the next two weeks, with the second week a compilation show that will not eliminate any of the contestants. Meanwhile, CSI goes on two-week hiatus.

So if past ratings are any indication, CBS will be seeing its Thursday ratings plunge as it kicks off coverage of the tournament, and ratings aren't likely to be much better next week, with the early games of the "Sweet 16." Last year those games scored ratings of only 7.0 and 6.0.

"They don't have much choice to reschedule the NCAA," said James Goss, media analyst with Barrington Research Associates in Chicago who follows CBS parent Viacom Inc. (VIA: Research, Estimates) "The options would be to delay Survivor for a couple weeks or do what they're doing."

graphicGoss said the argument for not showing Survivor for two weeks is that it would push the program that much farther into the May sweeps period, when ratings are set to determine advertising rates in the future. Currently the program is set to have its last episode of this season on May 3, the second week of the May sweeps.

But Goss said as May goes on and weather gets nicer, the number of viewers watching television traditionally drops, meaning that a show's ratings will be hurt even if the share of viewers watching at that time stays high. So Goss said it makes a certain amount of sense to move Survivor and Big Apple, to Wednesday for two weeks.

"It's only for two weeks. The Survivor crowd will probably follow Survivor to a new night," said Goss. "It's an addicting show."

Click here for's NCAA tournament coverage

Chris Edner, spokesman for CBS, said that the network believes it will be a big winner for carrying the early round games of the NCAA, even if the numbers fall far below its Thursday night ratings of the last six weeks. He said the network expects Survivor to post the same kind of numbers it's been scoring on Thursday night, and that even the less popular Thursday night basketball games will do better for the network than its recent Wednesday night programming. So he said the two-night numbers will be significantly higher due to basketball.

"The NCAA tournament is one of this network's most prized assets," said Edner. "The fact that it coincides with the resurgence on Thursday is a good problem to have. I can assure you there's no one in this company going, 'Darn, we have NCAA basketball this Thursday.'"

Ratings for top sporting events are dropping

The NCAA championship game, set for April 2, will likely be among the nation's most popular sports program this year. Last year's game in which Michigan State beat Florida was well off the previous year's viewership, but it still scored a 14.1 rating, enough to beat even the average rating for the pro basketball's finals, as well as baseball's World Series average ratings.

Still, the ratings for the NCAA have been declining as have all sports ratings in recent years, even as the cost the networks are paying in rights increases.

NCAA spokesman Wallace Renfro said the decline in ratings seems to be more an indication of industry trends, not a decline in interest in college basketball overall.

"It gets into competition for the eyeball," he said. "Sure, you have concerns about the decline. It's your championship. I'm sure CBS has concerns about it. But at the end of the day we don't see such a shift that it has any threat to the value of the championship."

graphicCBS is in the sixth year of a 7-year contract to broadcast the NCAA men's basketball tournament for a total cost of $1.75 billion. In Nov. 1999 it signed a a new 11-year contract for the tournament as well as a number of less lucrative rights that will cost the network a minimum of $6 billion.

CBS and NCAA officials say a broader array of rights are bundled in the new package, making apple-to-apple comparisons difficult. It said it represents a 20 percent increase in fees paid to $360 million between 2002, the last year of the current contract, and the first year of the new contract in 2003.

CBS Television CEO Leslie Moonves told CNNfn that he is comfortable with the increased cost of the new NCAA rights package.

"In our case, we're very pleased with the NFL. We're very pleased with our deal on the NCAA basketball tournament, which both still makes sense," he said. "When we lost the NFL, it was a big blow to us. When we got it back, it was a big boon. And so far, we're able to make it work."

Still he conceded that there are risks for the network.

"As you look towards the future, I think the economics of television is changing and you have to be more cautious about what you're doing," he said.

Price paid to broadcast sports debated

Analysts suggest that in an era of declining viewership for sports, fees paid for broadcast rights cannot continue to climb.

"There is more attention being paid to the bottom line," said David Miller, media analyst for Sutro & Co., a Los Angeles investment firm. "Ratings are down not because there's anything wrong with product but because audiences have more and more choices. It is finally hitting the networks in the head, is it really worth paying out this much money when suffering decline in ratings and ever fragmenting viewership profiles?"

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But the dynamics of the industry are that there always seems to be at least one network looking for a boost for other programs that it is often willing to gamble on the promotional benefits of paying top-dollar for rights to premier sporting events, said Gene DeMark, a partner with KPMG.

"While you would think while the viewership is going down, it's going to lead to lower rights," he said. "But so far we're seeing the rights contracts demand higher premiums. My suspicion is you'll eventually see fees turn down. But there always seems to be one station willing to make the higher payment."

Despite the declining numbers, the nation is not becoming less interested in sports, said Barbara Zidovsky, vice president for Nielsen Sports Marketing service. In fact the percentage of television viewing time spent watching sports has stayed roughly level during the last decade. graphic