What a difference a little national obsession can make. Last week CBS announced that it would air a two-week marathon of Survivor repeats beginning on Sept. 15. That puts the hugely successful reality show up against NBC's broadcast of the Sydney Games, whose 17-day run also begins on the 15th. "There's no expectation we'll beat the Olympics," says CBS spokesman Chris Ender. "We're just trying to keep our momentum up, especially among younger viewers."
Still, the move stands in stark contrast to conventional wisdom about how a competing network should handle the Summer Olympics: Stay out of their way. In fact, earlier this year ABC, CBS and Fox successfully lobbied Nielsen to delay the start of the fall season until after the Games so as not to give NBC an unfair head start in the season's ratings. But CBS was emboldened after Survivor's Aug. 23 final episode pulled in a jaw-dropping 52 million viewers, second only to the Super Bowl this year. The finale also had better numbers than any night of Olympic broadcasts over the last three Summer Games.
Should NBC be worried? Definitely. Media analysts note that with its paucity of standout personalities and 15- to 18-hour time difference, Sydney is one of the least TV-friendly of recent Games. CBS is also enhancing the Survivor repeats with new commentary from the castaways. Given the mania for all things Survivor, that could count for a lot. So what it will come down to is this: Will America want to watch a bunch of determined competitors go for the gold in a beautiful far-off locale...or will they watch the Olympics?