Sunday, September 03, 2000

CBS outmaneuvers NBC in TV games

        Snake? Rat? What are NBC executives calling CBS Television President Leslie Moonves, who is doing his best to sabotage NBC's Summer Olympics ratings?

        The behind-the-scenes TV games are as interesting as going for the gold in Australia, and just as cutthroat as CBS' Survivor competition won by Richard Hatch last month.

Leslie Moonves
Leslie Moonves

        • NBC folks claim Mr. Moonves assembled the alliance of TV networks that voted NBC's Summer Olympics out of the fall TV season.

        The rival networks successfully petitioned Nielsen Media Research to delay starting the TV season until Oct. 2, the day after the Summer Olympics close. (The Olympics air Sept. 15-Oct. 1 on Channels 5, 22, CNBC and MSNBC.)

        So the big Olympic ratings won't count in the 2000-2001 season, which will make it more difficult for NBC to win the TV year.

        • Now Mr. Moonves is rerunning CBS' blockbuster Survivor against NBC's Olympics, which could put a dent in ratings for the Games. (Survivor repeats 9 p.m. daily Sept. 15-29, except Sundays.)

  That's what one ABC executive says, given the huge ratings for Regis Philbin's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
  Larry Hyams, ABC research vice president, has charted the 27 states in which Millionaire exceeds the national average rating (9.3), including Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, New Jersey and Illinois.
  “The states in which he's the most popular account for 280 electoral votes, more than enough to get him elected,” Mr. Hyams says.
  Ohio ranked No. 8 (11.3 rating), 20 percent over the national average. Kentucky was No. 15 (9.8), 5 percent over average. Millionaire is biggest in Hawaii, 42 percent (13.2 rating) over average.
  ABC's spin-doctor also provided these statistics about Millionaire:
  • More than 83 million different people tune in to Millionaire in an average week.
  “That's 165 percent more people than live in Canada, or 39 percent more viewers than live in the United Kingdom,” Mr. Hyams says. “Of the 227 countries on planet Earth, only 10 have a population higher than the total weekly viewership of our game show.
  • 6 percent of its weekly audience watches all three nights; 70 percent watch once a week.
  • 74 percent live in single-family homes, followed by apartment dwellers (20 percent) and trailer-park residents (6 percent).
  • 49 percent own dogs; 33 percent have cats.

        Before that move, some TV critics, myself included, had questioned how many people will watch the Sydney Games. The prime-time telecasts will contain few surprises, because the events are tape-delayed 12 hours or more. (Australia is 15 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. When the Today show comes on from Sydney at 7 a.m., it will be 10 p.m. over there.)

        The Today show will broadcast names of winners for that night's telecasts. Winners also will be posted immediately on the Internet ( The news will be repeated throughout the day by CNN, ESPN, Fox Sports, local TV news and radio.

        Since the results will be known, Survivor fans may change channels at 9 p.m. to see all the devious doings on the South China Sea island that promoted sore loser Susan Hawk, the Wisconsin truck driver, to call winner Mr. Hatch a “snake” and runner-up Kelly Wiglesworth a “rat.”

        Mr. Hatch's $1-million prize could look like sand dollars compared to what NBC would lose if the Olympics fail to deliver the viewers (ratings points) guaranteed to advertisers. Also at stake are the bragging rights for winning a TV season, which networks cash in for bigger advertising revenues the following season.

Voted off ratings island
               NBC executives were stunned when the networks voted to delay the TV season from its traditional start date, the third week in September. The move was made by a simple majority vote. In other words, NBC was voted off the island.

        “I've never heard of anything like this before,” says Garth Ancier, NBC Entertainment president.

        “Les is the only person who would have the gumption to say: "I know the season always starts Sept. 15 or so, but I've just decided it shouldn't start until Oct. 2.' We'll just say the season starts when the Olympics are over,” Mr. Ancier says.

        CBS' gigantic Winter Olympics ratings always have been counted in the TV season average. NBC wanted the same boost by moving the Summer Games from July-August to September.

        “When CBS had the Winter Olympics, I didn't see him saying, "I want to take those Olympics numbers out, because they really shouldn't count in the season average. It's an atypical event,'” Mr. Ancier says.

        “It's like saying, "I don't want the Super Bowl counted in the average!'” Mr. Ancier says about TV's most-watched prime-time program every year.

Giving away too much
               It's been a tough year at NBC, which has misplayed the reality/game show genre.

        Before the networks were caught off guard by Survivor — who wasn't? — NBC botched its revival of Twenty-One, the game show that tried to compete with ABC's smash, Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

        Twenty-One, hosted by Maury Povich, was canceled in part because the show was expensive, Mr. Ancier says. NBC gave away much more in prize money than it cost to produce each episode. (Whoops!)

        “The amount of money given away on Twenty-One was astronomical,” Mr. Ancier admits. “We were averaging, on the first seven shows, $700,000 to $800,000 in prizes. Cash! That's more than most shows cost.”

        After seven telecasts, NBC quietly cut the cash value for each game in half, to $50,000, he says.

        “And the very first show we did after we dropped the prizes in half, a guy won $1.7 million,” Mr. Ancier says. “All the statistics said that no one would ever get to game No. 7, and win the million — and he did.”

        That night NBC was a couple of bucks short when Mr. Povich handed bundles of cash from a silver platter to the winner.

        “We literally didn't have enough cash to give these people. We only kept $300,000 in a locked room with guards, and we had to say, "We'll give you $300,000 now and the rest will have to be an IOU.' ”

        NBC may have to give Olympics advertisers IOUs, or additional “make good” commercials, if the Summer Games fall short of audience projections.

        So it's your choice: You can watch Team USA on tape-delay, or the taped reruns of Survivor's “Pagong” and “Tagi” tribes. Me? I'll be watching the ratings to see who's winning the TV games.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330. E-mail:

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