Eye in shipshape for start of ‘Survivor’

Product placement helps fund skein

CBS will find out this morning whether or not reality bites.

The first installment of the Eye web’s high-profile summertime foray into voyeurism — the reality skein “Survivor” — finally debuted Wednesday night after weeks of heavy promotion, countless magazine covers, a flurry of newspaper profiles and intense TV coverage.

Early signs are that viewers were intrigued by what they saw. The official CBS Web site for “Survivor” was virtually immobilized shortly after the show ended at 9 p.m. EDT, a network spokesman said. Visitors trying to log on found it all but impossible to do so, he added, because of the influx of traffic to the site.

CBS is considering a repeat of “Survivor” later this week, though as of Wednesday had no concrete plans to do so.

Like its voyeur predecessors “The Real World” and “Road Rules,” “Survivor” keeps the cameras rolling as real-life participants interact and sometimes clash as they go about their daily lives.

Bare-bones existence

But “Survivor” takes the genre a step further as it follows the adventures of 16 ordinary Americans who have been thrown on an island in the South Pacific with little more than the shirts on their backs and a few other provisions. Contestants, who hold sessions to vote one another off the island, battle for a chance at $1 million.

CBS Television CEO Leslie Moonves said he has seen several “Survivor” segs, and so far, he hasn’t been offended by any of the content.

“I don’t find it in any way socially irresponsible or reprehensible. It’s a great adventure. This is very different than world’s scariest car crashes.”

CBS announced the project in October. Since then media outlets have stumbled over each other trying to cover the show.

Best of all for the Eye web, the network claims the show posed no financial risk to the network.

“It wasn’t sold on a number,” Moonves said. Through product placement and other arrangements with advertisers, “we’ve already made money. It’s no greater risk than any other show.”

Next import

Beyond “Survivor,” CBS is betting on another European import, “Big Brother,” to score new, younger viewers this summer.

Scheduled five nights a week starting this July, “Big Brother” follows 10 participants as they interact while locked inside a small house in Studio City.

Should the first Nielsen results for “Survivor” be less than stellar, Moonves admitted that selling “Big Brother” will be more difficult. On the other hand, “Big Brother” could be helped by even modest interest in “Survivor.”

“If there’s an appetite for one, it feeds into another,” he said.

The Eye topper also doesn’t think the CBS image will be hurt by the addition of “Survivor” and “Big Brother” to the net’s summer sked.

“I don’t think it diminishes the brand in any way or shape,” Moonves said. “We’re still the network that does ‘Touched by an Angel’ and ’60 Minutes.’ This in no way takes away from it. … It’s summer programming. Instead of running ‘Candid Camera’ repeats, we can try to do something different. Why not take a chance.”

Mixed record

Voyeur TV so far has received a mixed record in primetime. The granddaddy of them all, Fox’s “Cops,” is still going strong after 12 years on the air. But ABC’s recent stab at the genre, “Making the Band,” has failed to attract much interest despite its pedigree (coming from “Real World”/”Road Rules” producers Bunim/Murray).

The recent Fox special “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” scored in the ratings during February sweeps, but turned into a black eye for the network after newly married couple Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger became national punchlines.

Fueling it all: the cultural phenomenon known as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Regis may be the host with the sharp suits, but the average Joes battling for $1 million while sitting in the hot seat were truly the biggest new stars of the just-completed TV season.

Meanwhile, Internet company Entertainment Network, which operates the Web site VoyeurDorm.com, filed suit against CBS on Wednesday, claiming that the company misappropriated trade secrets from the site.

According to the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, a low-level Infinity Broadcasting exec held meetings with VoyeurDorm.com about potentially setting up an alliance with an Infinity radio station in Tampa, Fla. The suit asks the judge to stop CBS from airing “Big Brother.”

“We gave them our blood and made everyone sign non-compete, non-disclosure pacts,” said Entertainment Network president David Marshlack.

A CBS spokesman called the lawsuit “frivolous, with no merit whatsoever.”

“The concept behind ‘Big Brother’ was developed by a European production company (Endemol) long before and independent of any so-called meeting with the operators of Voyeurdorm.com. We believe the allegations to be ludicrous, and CBS and Infinity will fully defend this matter.”

Privately, Eye execs were even more dismissive. “This is a pathetic ploy for publicity,” said one CBS insider.

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