Fame-Seeking Survivor 2 Crew Could Go Hungry
After tonight's finale, the current cast of the CBS reality hit will have a hard time making America forget about Richard, Rudy and Sue.
by Warren Cohen

Thursday, May 03, 2001

Ever since fat naked Richard Hatch wrangled his way to the million dollar booty on CBS's Survivor, the country can't seem to evict those castaways.

Hatch is all over the television dial, as a fill-in for Bryant Gumbel on the Early Show and a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight. Blistex-endorser Colleen Haskell has a new movie with Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider out next month. There's even a toy action figure of the curmudgeonly ex-Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, who also pitched Universal's 'Islands of Adventure' theme park in Orlando.

To those already sick of the reality show refugees, beware. After tonight, when CBS airs the finale of Suvivor: The Australian Outback, the U.S. population of ex-Survivors will double. The end of the second season will usher in the beginning of all post-Survivor employment opportunities such as commercial endorsements and personal appearance fees at events like road races to hospital openings. At least five of the Australian castaways have already signed with agents. But even though the new edition of the show has been the season's top ranked show, there are serious doubts about whether the new batch of islanders will get their full 15 minutes worth of fame.

This year, the ratings for Survivor have been as predictable as the cold nights in the Outback. The show kicked off with 45 million viewers watching a post-Super Bowl season premiere and settled into a steady pattern, averaging 28 million a week. That has been large enough to command the top Nielsen spot all season and also better than last year's Survivor run of around 24 million viewers. But rather than building up to tonight's finale, last week's show was off 14 percent from the 31 million who watched the March 1 episode, when Kucha tribe member Michael Skupin fell unconscious into a fire and became the first person to leave the show without being voted off.

The numbers have analysts at odds over its pop culture impact. Some say it's hard to argue with the reigning show of the season, which bested a tough competitor like NBC's Friends. 'It's the not the newest thing and hyped in every news story you see,' says Stacey Lynn Koerner, vice president of broadcast research at New York's TN Media. 'But in terms of the audience and the viewing, advertisers had not expected it to perform at this level.'

Others think that Survivor has been downgraded from phenomenon to appointment TV program. 'There's always something magical about the first group, the pioneers,' says Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research at Lifetime Television. 'So people will watch a second edition even if they don't find it as good as the first.'

Ratings aside, it's doubtful that the new Survivor cast will have as much appeal to Madison Avenue and Hollywood as the first crew. From the last batch, runner-ups like the trucker Susan Hawk ended up earning close to $100,000 a year from cameos on television series and appearance fees. Soft-spoken Kelly Wiglesworth will co-host a new show called Celebrity Adventure on the E! Network this fall. Even a minor, early evictee like Bible thumper Dirk Been endorsed Airborne, a herbal cold remedy, and advertised his speaking fees between $2,500 to $5,000.

But none of the current cast members have really cut through with the exception of mega-bitch Jerri Manthey, who was already working as an actress before joining the show (and has since landed a guest spot on the soap Young and the Restless. Ciphers like Kel Gleason, Nick Brown and Amber Brkich barely got a word in edgewise. Even the famished final three, Colby Donaldson, Keith Famie and Tina Wesson, seemed to take a backseat to the Outback's many critters.

This hasn't stopped Sherri Spillane, executive director of Los Angeles Ruth Webb Talent Agency, from signing up four members of the current cast: Rodger 'Kentucky Joe' Bingham, Maralyn 'Mad Dog' Hershey, Debb Eaton and Jeff Varner. 'Notoriety will only get you so far, but likeability takes over,' says Spillane, who also represents six cast members from the first show. 'I picked the ones I found who might have a lasting quality. All you have to do is look at the Nielsens.' But even Debb Eaton, the first evictee from the island, better known for her tabloid-like real life where she became engaged to her stepson? 'Debb's already done a few personal appearances,' insists Spillane.

Many marketers feel that the big winners from the second show will be Elisabeth Filarski, the reed-thin, weepy shoe designer who cracked the final four (she was the first Survivor cast member that CBS Late Show host David Letterman invited to sit down -- all others have had to stand by the studio exit door while he called out mocking questions) and Alicia Calaway, the femmebot-like personal trainer. Calaway has already signed with IMG, the sports management power based in Cleveland. Sharon Chang, IMG's director of broadcasting, sees Calaway with a future in sports and fitness endorsements along with talking head responsibilities. 'Alicia has everything it takes to go the next level,' says Chang. 'Maybe working with national cable network, or the nationally syndicated show, where she can be a correspondent.'

But a final danger for future opportunities is that there has been so much blatant product placement this season, from companies like Doritos, Target and Pontiac, that the Survivors may have spent their best pitchlines on the show. After all, with all those preexisting commitments -- CBS has the right to prevent contestants from advertising products that would conflict with the show's sponsors until this fall -- what's left for advertisers? Is there really such a demand for Beef Jerky that necessitates a pitchman like Kel (who got booted allegedly for sneaking in a bite of the stuff without sharing with the tribe)? And could the gamine Elisabeth, whose hair fell out due to malnutrition, start endorsing Rogaine? Enterprising agents will surely try, but marketers looking for a sure bet may as well keep trotting out Richard, Rudy and Sue.