Tribal touchdown

"Survivor" ratings trounce everything but the Super Bowl.

By Eric Boehlert
Published August 24, 2000 5:00PM (EDT)

It was bigger than anybody thought.

Based on early overnight readings from Nielsen Media Research, last night's "Survivor" finale drew 51 million viewers. That's roughly 15 million more than industry pros were predicting. The final Nielsen numbers will be released later today.

If those numbers hold, "Survivor" will have outperformed the Academy Awards, and trail only the Super Bowl as the most-watched show for all of 2000.

It's an astounding performance, capping off one of TV's most unusual blockbuster stories. A hit from Day 1, when the debut drew 15 million viewers, "Survivor's" audience continued to grow: an almost unheard phenomenon in network TV. By last week, its viewership reached 28 million. Then 51 million last night.

Naturally, the audience grew from half-hour to half-hour, as the curious tuned in to see the last vote. Forty-three million viewers tuned in from the get-go, and the numbers climbed all the way to 57 million for the final showdown.

For the most part, CBS's network competition tried to get out of the way last night, with most offering up weak repeats as sacrificial lambs. NBC's "Dateline," on from 8 to 9 p.m., was the only original offering opposite "Survivor." The good news was "Dateline" came in No. 2 for the time slot. The bad news was "Survivor" beat it by 40 million viewers.

Despite that monster showing, "Survivor" was never in danger of dethroning any of TV's most-watched programs. For instance, the final "M*A*S*H" episode on Feb. 28, 1983, still the most-watched show of all time, drew a 77 share. That means of the people watching television that night, three out of every four were tuned into "M*A*S*H."

In today's hundred-channel environment, those sorts of numbers -- particularly for non-sporting event telecasts -- are never going to be matched again. Last night, "Survivor" drew a 44 share.

How did "Survivor" compare with TV's more recent blockbusters? It easily outdrew the highest-rated episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," aired during the May sweeps. That night the special celebrity edition, featuring comedian Ray Romano, drew roughly 37 million viewers. (Although it never built to a culmination like "Survivor," by the end of its premier run last summer, ABC cheered as the runaway ratings hit drew 22 million viewers for its finale.)

"Survivor" also became the highest-rated, regularly scheduled show of the year, beating the Feb. 17 episode of NBC's "E.R.," seen by 39 million viewers. "Survivor" even outdrew this year's Academy Awards telecast and its 46 million viewers. Only last winter's Super Bowl, which attracted 88 million eyeballs, stood between "Survivor" becoming the year's biggest show.

True, "Survivor" couldn't match "Seinfield's" farewell episode from May of 1998, which drew a whopping 76 million viewers. But consider the following. "Survivor" has only aired 13 episodes, compared to nearly 200 "Seinfield" episodes that over nine seasons routinely ranked as TV's most-watched. "Survivor's" cast was made up literally of no-names, as opposed to featuring America's best known comic. And unlike the "Seinfeld" finale, "Survivor" did not air during the May sweeps period, which always attracts the largest number of TV viewers. Instead, the show aired during arguably one of the most popular weeks for summer vacations of the year, meaning fewer families were at home watching television last night.

For CBS, this "Survivor" gravy train isn't over yet. The network will rerun the entire series during September to counter NBC's Olympic programming. Then the real test comes in October, when the network launches its new fall lineup. Endless promos aired during "Survivor" have tried to link every new series to the most popular show on television. One spot introducing "The Fugitive" called its star "the ultimate survivor." This fall, CBS will find out if all those spots actually paid off. For now though, the execs can savor that 51 million mark and patiently wait for "Survivor: The Australian Outback," which debuts in January -- right after the Super Bowl.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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