Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Tristate viewers revel in suspense

'Reality shows seem to do better here'

By Mike Pulfer and Christine Oliva
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Everyone knows a Rudy, a Coleen, a Ramona.

        In the Tristate, their names might be different, but their character traits are the same. Whiners. Know-it-alls. Malingerers. People who don't deserve your company. Or a million dollars. Or the attention of the millions of people who tuned into TV's top-rated show last Wednesday.

(CBS photo)
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        Knowing these people could be a big clue in understanding the overwhelming success of Survivor, the popular CBS series about real people with real conflicts trapped on the island of Pulau Tiga, off Borneo.

        Local fans seem to be doing more than their part to ensure the success of the show, which returns tonight at 8 p.m. on CBS. Cincinnatians tuned in more than viewers in any other city on June 14. Last week, Survivor ratings dropped slightly in Cincinnati but increased elsewhere — putting it at the top of the ratings chart.

        Why? Because we have nothing else to do? Because we'd rather watch than participate? Because we like Channel 12?

        “It's our ability to identify with and get caught up with the characters,” said Rodney D. Coates, professor of sociology and director of Black World Studies at Miami University, Oxford. “People identify with the average Joe Blow and Jane Blow.”

        Cincinnatians, he said, “may relate to them so much because we're more home-grown than other places.”

    Survivor was the top-rated show in the nation last week, and Cincinnati viewers helped put it there.
    • Cincinnati was the top-ranked city June 14, with 22 percent of the Tristate's households tuned in. Last Wednesday, the city's ratings dropped out of the top 10 as more viewers across the nation tuned in. Still, Cincinnati's ratings fell only to 19 percent.
    • Nationally, Survivor became the No.1 watched show last week, with ABC's Who Wants to Be A Millionaire on hiatus. It had a rating of 14.6 on June 21, with more than 24 million viewers tuning in.
    The new numbers mean the sounds of island nature and island bickering were bouncing around some 152,000 Tristate houses and apartments last week. Viewership is up 46 percent nationally since Survivor's premiere May 31.
        “Reality shows always seem to do better here than nationally, said Melanie Seipp, senior broadcast buyer at Northlich, the downtown advertising, marketing and public-relations agency.

        “Cincinnatians tend to think we're the center of the universe ... and we'd rather watch people in exotic locations than actually go there,” said Mitch Dunn, senior media strategist at the same firm. “This show appeals to that idea.”

        Lisa Oravec, of Fairfield, got hooked on the series within its first five minutes.

        “I'm embarrassed to admit it,” the 39-year-old says. “I swore I wouldn't watch it ... but it's like people driving by a car wreck. It was disturbing to watch, but I just couldn't turn it off.”

        Monica Parks, 29, of Kennedy Heights, calls the program “gross” and says she watches it every chance she gets.

        “It's nasty to sit there and watch them. They eat rats and worms and any kind of bugs.”

Building audience
        At the same time, Ms. Parks is drawn by the suspense of it all.

        “You've got to see who's going to get kicked off or stay on.”

        Clearly, the most intriguing aspect for viewers is seeing who gets dumped by his/her teammates. (One person is banished from the South China Sea island each week.)

        “It's the main reason for watching,” says Mr. Coates, who saw two episodes.

        While the suspense builds for viewers, it builds for advertisers.

        Since Survivor was launched May 31, ad rates for the time slot have doubled, said Chris Sehring, general sales manager at WKRC-TV.

        “We're not charging Academy Award or Super Bowl prices,” he said, “but prices have gone up.”

        That's good for the TV station because the show will be on the air through Aug. 23.

        Survivor is particularly valuable to CBS because it draws a primar ily younger audience (18-54), Mr. Sehring said. The network's prime-time lineup has been criticized in the past as unappealing to younger audiences.

Local opinion
        Viewers have their own ideas about what made the show a hit here.

        “When most people think of Cincinnati, they think safe and conservative — a place where things are on an even keel,” said Alice Mack, 36, of West Chester. “It's a way to escape what real life might be like ... The network is really feeding off that desire.”

        Ms. Mack, who watched about 15 minutes of one episode, plans to watch no more. “Surviving with my kids (6 and 9) is enough of an adventure for me.”

        “Survivor is escapism, voyeurism and human suffering all rolled up into one,” said Northlich's Mr. Dunn. “It's the only fresh alternative” for summer television.

        “It reminded me of Lord of the Flies,” said Mark Clark, 37, of Price Hill. “The way people decided who they liked and who they didn't like. There was no basis for it.”

        But Jan Celella, 64, of Villa Hills, who hasn't missed an episode yet, said the participants can't afford to base their decisions on personalities.

        “It has to be survival of the fittest,” she said. “As much as you might like a person, the idea is for your tribe to win. I don't think it can turn into a personality thing.”

        “I can't imagine being that grungy for that long,” Mrs. Celella said. “I mean, we're talking 39 days here without a shower ... But they seem to be coping.”

        Gina Schmidt, 29, of Westwood, says she and her husband set aside time to watch Survivor.

        “It's different from a normal game show,” she said. “You really find out a lot about each of the people — their strengths and how they interact with each other.”


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