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CBS beach party

'Survivor' benefits go far beyond finale ratings

Even after the final tiki torch is extinguished, the last alliance member is plucked off and Richard finally puts on some pants and goes home, CBS will continue to reap the benefits of the summer smash “Survivor.”

The winning island castaway will be revealed tonight in a two-hour finale that ratings trackers predict could pull in one of the biggest audiences of the year, perhaps trailing only the Super Bowl and Academy Awards.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” CBS Television president and CEO Leslie Moonves said of the “Survivor” hype.

The identity of the winning castaway is probably TV’s best-kept secret since the revelation on the Nov. 21, 1980 episode of “Dallas” that Kristin pulled the trigger on J.R. Ewing. And while “Dallas”-like ratings aren’t possible in today’s 100-channel television universe, “Survivor” will go down as the No. 1 summer series of all time — and perhaps the match that lit the fire in the Eye’s demo belly.

But now comes CBS’ big reward challenge: Capitalizing on this summer’s success as it prepares to launch its new fall slate.

After all, more than a month remains before the networks begin rolling out their lineups. And the nation’s attention will soon be diverted from tiny Palau Tiga island to the much larger continent of Australia as the Summer Olympics kicks off in mid-September.

Without “Survivor” and its sibling “Big Brother” on the air this fall, Eye execs don’t expect to duplicate this summer’s demo derby.

One year after “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” proved there was indeed an audience for unscripted summer programming, “Survivor” has surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic member of the CBS tribe. “Survivor” has funneled to the net millions of viewers aged 18-49 — the audience that advertisers love but that has been especially elusive for the older-skewing Eye net to deliver.

If even a few members of the under-50 crowd that checked out “Survivor” this summer decide to sample some of CBS’ offerings this fall, the Eye may be closer than ever to shaking its long-held image as the geriatric network.

Fountain of youth

Last week, in fact, the median age of CBS’ primetime lineup dipped to 48.3 years, below ABC’s 48.4 years and marking the first time since such records were tracked that the Eye has been younger than one of its rivals.

“They have effectively connected with MTV and VH1 viewers in a way that they understand there is possibly a destination on CBS for them,” says TN Media analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner.

“Survivor” is already paying dividends as the fall launch approaches. From an awareness standpoint, CBS is already ahead of the network pack heading into fall. Of course, those countless spots for the Eye’s new series have given the network an early lead in the race for audience awareness, and even more important, “intent-to-view” figures.

In particular, upcoming CBS drama “The Fugitive” (already a well-known franchise) and Bette Midler laffer “Bette” (bolstered by its star power) have tracked higher-than-usual awareness levels — especially for this time of the summer, before marketing campaigns have kicked into high gear.

“Survivor” has also helped CBS News’ “The Early Show” post significant gains in key adult and femme demos. Exec producer Steve Friedman hopes that “Survivor: The Reunion,” hosted by “Early’s” Bryant Gumbel, will bring new viewers to the show.

“A lot of people will be seeing Bryant for the first time — especially the younger audiences who are in love with ‘Survivor,’ ” Friedman said.

“Survivor” has become almost nightly fodder for Dave Letterman, whose “Late Show” has seen a ratings bump on Wednesday nights following the hit reality series. “Late Show” is up 18% in household ratings on Wednesdays since “Survivor” kicked off on May 31, compared to the same period last summer.

Olympic challenge

And the Eye will also presumably benefit from airing their fall marketing message during repeats of “Survivor,” which CBS will air opposite the Olympics. All 13 segs of “Survivor” will air every night except Sunday beginning Sept. 15.

As for tonight’s ratings projections, most ratings experts believe the show could average between 35 million and 38 million, with a tune-in of 40 million or more likely in the final half-hour.

Those high expectations have allowed CBS to sell some of its 30-second spots for as much as $600,000.

“Survivor” would need to average more than 39.4 million viewers to top the Feb. 17 turnout for NBC’s “ER,” which ranks as the most-watched series episode of the season and the No. 3 telecast of the season, behind only January’s Super Bowl (88.5 million) and March’s Academy Awards (46.3 million).

In homes, a 40 share is possible for the two hours, with a 50 share not out of the question for the final 30 minutes.

In key demos, though, “Survivor” could easily top a 50 share in women 18-34, after hitting a best-yet 44 last week. And in adults 18-49 — where it has logged a 38 share the last three weeks — the high 40s is possible.

“Dallas,” by the way, delivered an amazing 53.3 rating and 76 share with its “Who Shot JR?” wrap-up in 1980. It ranks as the No. 2 show of all time, behind only the 1983 series finale of “MASH” (60.2/77).

“Survivor’s” numbers are all the more amazing since it airs in the summer, when homes using television (HUT) levels are considerably lower than those of the regular season. These levels are also higher in the 9 o’clock hour than at 8, which should allow the show’s final minutes to reach its largest possible audience.

The TV season could really get interesting starting Jan. 28, when CBS airs the first episode of “Survivor II” following its telecast of the Super Bowl.

(Paula Bernstein in New York contributed to this report.)

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