Superstar Joe Abruzzese: 'Survivor's' win-win mentality scores big

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CBS-TV's hit "Survivor" splashed onto TV screens in June, but behind the scenes the network worked furiously on marketing the show almost a year before its debut.

Although Viacom's CBS made it look easy, it was this exceptionally early, integrated marketing effort involving the entire network that positioned "Survivor" to succeed even before the first contestant was voted off the island.

"We wanted to do some original programming, which was very expensive, and [CBS President-CEO] Les Moonves said if we got the funding for it ahead of time, we could do this," says Joe Abruzzese, president of sales at CBS-TV.

BURNETT TO RESCUE

After fishing around for a variety of ideas, CBS settled on "Survivor," created by reality TV impresario Mark Burnett, putting 16 strangers on an island where they are forced to eat bugs and spear their own fish, among other challenges. During each episode, one person was voted off with the final survivor winning $1 million.

The idea was infectiously catchy and CBS bet it could sell enough category-exclusive sponsorships to charter advertisers far in advance to finance the show's costly production.

To make the somewhat steep price tag for a new series easier to swallow (advertiser packages were estimated at $3.7 million each), CBS offered sponsors an unusual degree of in-program product placement and gave each the right to use "Survivor" imagery in its own advertising. CBS also planned an unprecedented multimedia marketing and public relations assault surrounding the show.

"We asked sponsors to pay a lot for an unknown commodity, but it turned out to be one of the best bargains in TV history," says Mr. Abruzzese, noting that "Survivor" is one of only a few programs in his 20 years' experience whose ratings have rocketed so far beyond expectations.

The CBS sales team led by Mr. Abruzzese included JoAnn Ross, Linda Rene and Chris Simon; they hit the streets in June 1999 looking for sponsors. By October, nine were committed: Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light; Ericsson Mobile Phones; Frito-Lay's Doritos; General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac division for its new Aztek; Reebok International; Target Stores; Schering-Plough Corp.'s Dr. Scholl's; the U.S. Army; and Visa USA.

"We've done each of these tactics before, such as offering category exclusivity or product placement, but we never did all these tactics at once, for one show," says Mr. Abruzzese.

The deal paid off many times over when "Survivor" became one of the best-rated new series in history and sponsors benefited from the overall publicity. Some got even luckier: Target offered a parachute that was serendipitously incorporated into the show by cast members as shelter from the weather, snaring extended brand exposure.

"The Target parachute role wasn't scripted, and there were many opportunities to have products play meaningful roles in surviving," Mr. Abruzzese says.

CBS cranked up the publicity machine for "Survivor" nine months before it aired, spreading the word to draw as many potential cast members as possible to auditions.

BEAT THE DRUMS

All 16 CBS owned TV stations and more than 100 of its affiliate radio stations helped beat the drums, with Mark Burnett participating in dozens of drive-time radio programs to help generate buzz.

"Mark Burnett was tireless, calling in starting at 5:30 every morning lending his brilliance at showmanship and promotion to the early publicity," says Chris Ender, senior VP-communications for CBS Entertainment.

Thousands of consumers auditioned, fueling local and word-of-mouth curiosity about "Survivor." When the 16 cast members were chosen, CBS released videos of the contestants, sprouting feature stories on entertainment TV programs and detailed coverage in national magazines and newspapers.

Prior to the show's debut, each cast member gave press interviews in their home markets and by the time the show began airing in June, consumer interest was frenzied.

CBS was careful to lock in commitments from each contestant to grant their first interview after being booted off the island to its "Early Show," with follow-ups at the networks' other talk shows plus CBS parent Viacom's cable networks MTV and VH1, broadening exposure and boosting the company's overall ratings.

Instead of one person handling publicity for each show, which is typical for CBS programs, the network was forced to deploy six publicists working full time on "Survivor" to keep up with press demands, Mr. Ender says.

A WEB OBSESSION

Underground publicity developed as media coverage expanded and unauthorized Web sites-such as survivorsucks.com-emerged filled with rich data about the show.

"The underground Web sites were like a pebble in our shoe, since we didn't have control over everything being said about `Survivor,' but every bit of publicity seemed to help," says Mr. Ender.

Naturally, CBS boosted the prices of sponsorship packages for "Survivor II," which debuted immediately after the Super Bowl in January-the average cost per advertiser is now estimated at more than $12 million each.

Ericsson and the U.S. Army opted out, and were replaced by Cingular and Pepsi-Cola Co.

"Each marketer lent its own creativity and energy to `Survivor,' with product placement that added to the story and enhanced the entertainment ... we wouldn't have had it any other way," says Mr. Abruzzese.

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