Why CBS should pay to reunite Survivor’s contestants for its 20th anniversary party

Last week, I broke the news that CBS is reuniting 20 seasons of cast members for a Survivor reunion party that will also be part of the Television Critics Association’s winter gathering. Part of that story was about how CBS is only paying expenses for season 20 cast members, so everyone else will have to pay their own way. Since then, cast members and others have suggested to me that’s okay, because there’s a recession and it’s nice to be invited and it’d be too expensive. I don’t buy it.

First, 20 seasons is a milestone for any show, never mind one that’s changed television and remains so popular in its old age. And let’s be honest: This is probably a one-time thing, because whether the show ends or continues on, it probably won’t have a 40th anniversary, and CBS probably won’t do this for any of its other shows. Maybe for Emmy-whore The Amazing Race, but not for Big Brother, which gets buzz from crazed online fans but lacks both the quality and ratings that makes Survivor CBS’ unscripted crown jewel. And it’s not like any of CBS’ reality shows except its three stand-bys are drawing attention or revenue to the network.

But none of that pays the bills, so let’s look at numbers. CBS is already paying for Survivor 20 contestants and a guest (some guests are actually cast members from other seasons) to show up; that makes sense because they’re doing double-duty and promoting the new season, too. So whatever that expense is, it’s already covered.

Let’s assume all 281 of the remaining contestants will attend (which is not going to happen), and that each ticket costs $500 (way too much, never mind all of the cast members who live in the L.A. area, and even getting them a car would be a third of that). Let’s also add $2,500 for Elisabeth Hasselbeck to be flown from New York first class.

They’ll also need to get to and from the airport, and since I’ve taken the SuperShuttle many times, so can they: $74 per person round trip. And they need to stay overnight because they’ll all be drunk after the party and need places to hook up with each other, so there’s $200 a room (probably a liberal estimate again), and we’ll let them have their own rooms for two nights, so $400 per person. And a per-diem of $50 a day for two days, which is just being nice. So, we have $143,000 for airfare, $112,400 for hotel, $20,794 for transportation, and $28,100 for per diems.

That’s a grand total of $304,294 for CBS to pay for its cast to attend.

Survivor Samoa makes $152,246 every 30 seconds during commercial breaks.

In other words, the revenue from less than one minute of advertising in one of 16 hours of television, each of which contains maybe 12 minutes of national advertising. And let’s not forget how liberal my estimates are; it’s probably far less than $300,000.

I realize this is simplifying some complex components: ad rates vary and there are taxes to pay, CBS is probably already dropping an ad or three on the party itself, and of course, the production of the show isn’t inexpensive. The anniversary party and gathering is also for crew members, and it’d be amazing for them to pay to have the show’s 300 or so international crew members come, too. But 20 seasons of cast members are going to generate publicity, and they’re also the people who made the show what it was; all the production in the world wouldn’t work without a strong cast.

Ultimately, compared to the money CBS makes off of the show, the expense would be minor. So pay up, CBS.

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