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Ratings May Have Dipped, But 'Big Brother's' Call is Heard

The ratings for CBS' “Big Brother” program have died down since its premiere last week — leveling off from the debut episode's 14 million viewers to average 6 million a night — but the show is still sending numerous people to the BigBrother2000.com Web site with a strong and continuous call-to-action during the show.

The premiere of “Big Brother” and its Internet sibling brought millions of people to the Web site and to their televisions July 5. Since that time, the number of simultaneous visitors and the amount of time they spend on the site have quadrupled, according to Julie Mason, spokeswoman for America Online, Dulles, VA, which built and maintains the “Big Brother” Web site. Exact numbers for the site were not available from CBS or its Internet partners, although both said the results were “tremendously strong.”

Considering that the show will run every weeknight for three months, the leveling off in ratings is not a complete surprise, Mason said. The Web site has helped to stabilize ratings by keeping the convergent circle open. Opinion polls and a chat room will be added to the site to augment its already impressive stickiness, she said.

The television ratings for the premiere more than doubled any other program during its time slot, and drew 2 million more 18- to 34-year-old viewers than its lead-in, the top-rated show in the country, “Survivor.” This important age group has kept up with the show more than any other demographic and is more likely to have a television set and a personal computer on in the same room, said Chris Ender, senior vice president of corporate communications at CBS Entertainment. He added that the idea of convergence is more appealing to this audience, which has grown up with both PCs and televisions.

“This is true convergence, and we view the site and show as having a symbiotic relationship in which the Web site drives traffic to the show and the show drives traffic to the site,” said Ender. “There's no question that these programs are helping to bring in a new audience and raise our ad revenue both on television and the Internet significantly. We see the site and the show as mutually important.”

“Big Brother” features 10 contestants locked in a house with 28 video cameras and 60 microphones for 100 days vying for a $500,000 prize. Every two weeks one contestant in the house will be voted out by viewers, either by calling a 900 number — a cost of 99 cents — or going to BigBrother2000, which is routinely mentioned during the television show. No further marketing is conducted during the phone call.

When “Big Brother” used the Internet call-to-action in countries like Spain and Germany, a similar site drew more than 200 million visitors during its three-month run.

BigBrother2000.com is a co-branded site developed and maintained in coordination with America Online and streaming media company Digital Island Inc., San Francisco. It is the first place where viewers can go to see what's happening in the house. The television program is actually day-old footage edited from the live Webcast.

To maintain interest and involve viewers even more, the site is also sponsoring a weekly contest, which began this week. Viewers are urged to visit the site and submit a short biography and a name for one of the chickens kept at the house, which are a food source for the housemates. The Mystery Chicken contest rewards the winning biographer with a “Big Brother” jacket and a Web page featuring the winning submission.

America Online is heavily promoting the show on its site and through its service. In turn, the Big Brother site pushes visitors to join AOL on every page. The marketing of the show started months ago with outdoor signs and buys on bus billboards in major markets nationwide. During the show, viewers are constantly reminded of the site. Because of the deal with AOL, CBS will enjoy preferred status on AOL's start-up page and keyword search.

The company has built two sites — one accessed by anyone through the aol.com portal and BigBrother2000.com, and one for AOL members only. AOL members will have access to additional cameras and information and can participate in live chats with those housemates eliminated from the show.

The success of the program is bolstering the many other Webcasting companies that have placed ads on the site through partner AOL, including Internet radio company Spinner.com, ticket dealer Moviephone.com and instant chat provider ICQ.com.

CBS.com, which hosts the “Survivor” Web site, has seen an increase of 44 percent from 417,000 visitors a week to more than 600,000, with more than 40 percent of the total weekly audience who surf the site clicking on the “Survivor” home page. Ender said that with more 18- to 34-year-old viewers tuning into “Big Brother” than “Survivor,” CBS and AOL expect even more action on BigBrother2000.com.

After the success of “Survivor” — which pits contestants on a remote island against each other in various survival games, resulting in the least helpful contestant being voted off — CBS was banking on the new reality-based “Big Brother” to add a younger, more Internet-savvy audience to the network. The rights alone, bought from a Dutch company, cost the network more than $20 million. After only two weeks on the air, “Survivor” drew 18- to 49-year-old males at a rate 12 percent higher than the other five networks — ABC, NBC, FOX, WB and UPN — combined.

“Our job with this show, just like it was with 'Survivor,' is not to lose a core audience, but to expand it,” said Leslie Moonves, president/CEO of CBS Television, during a recent press conference. “[With 'Big Brother'], we're not looking to get younger overall, we're looking to expand our core audience, which is what we've already done with 'Survivor.'”

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