LOS ANGELES, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- The CBS reality-based show "Survivor" is still a solid hit, but no longer a cultural phenomenon -- reminding Hollywood again that there is no such thing as a formula for success in the entertainment industry.
Ethan Zohn, a 27-year-old soccer pro, won the $1 million first prize -- but "Survivor: Africa's" final episode attracted only about half the audience that tuned in for the conclusion of the first "Survivor" series in August 2000, and lost about 25 percent of the audience that watched the finale of "Survivor: The Australian Outback" last May.
This is probably not what CBS programmers had envisioned when -- based on the extraordinary popularity of the first "Survivor" series -- they committed to a long relationship with the show and its producers.
The cast -- er, contestants -- on the first "Survivor" series became, in many cases, celebrities. The $1 million winner, Richard Hatch, is still a familiar face -- if not a household name -- to millions of American entertainment consumers who might be bit hard pressed to name the winner of "Survivor: The Australian Outback."
Although the ratings for "Survivor: Africa" were not as strong as for the previous series, there's no need to take up a collection or hold a bake sale for CBS.
The two-hour special still drew the highest numbers for any CBS series episode so far in the 2001-02 season. And the series remains relatively cheap to produce, so from a cost-benefit standpoint, it is still a reliable profit center for the network.
Nevertheless, it's quite a drop from the phenomenal to the merely reliable. Just ask anyone at ABC, where "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" used to be a big shot.
It was the surprising and sudden success of the Regis Philbin-hosted big-money game show that got network executives thinking that game shows would protect them as they traversed a new media landscape fraught with peril.
Production costs were rising. The audience was fragmenting -- turning to a greater variety of sources for entertainment -- which made it tougher than ever for any one show to attract viewers in numbers that, just a decade ago, would have been considered mediocre at best.
ABC ran "Millionaire" several nights each week and, for a time, the show dominated the Nielsen ratings with multiple appearances in the weekly Top 10. It was reminiscent of the Beatles' domination of the Billboard charts when they had four or five records in the Top 10 at one time.
A few months ago, ABC executives seriously speculated publicly about how much life "Millionaire" has left in it.
"Survivor: Marquesas" -- you may think of it as "Survivor 4" for shorthand -- is scheduled to premiere on CBS on Feb. 28. That gives you an idea of how things have changed for "Survivor" and CBS.
The show used to be the network's heavy artillery during sweeps, those times of the year when TV executives hit the viewers with their best stuff in order to maximize ratings and set the highest possible advertising rates. The upcoming sweeps period will be, for all intents, a "Survivor"-free zone at CBS.
Trends may not last, but movie and TV executives have little choice other than to spot them and then follow them. It is often said that in Hollywood, nobody wants to go first -- but everybody wants to be first to go second.
Take the movie business's plans for 2002, for example.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the studios are committing more than $1 billion collectively to the production, marketing and distribution of 13 sequels this year.
"Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," scheduled for a May release carries the highest profile in the group. There is also a lot of money riding on the second installments of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" series, both due in theaters during the Christmas holiday season.
Big stakes are also on the table for the upcoming sequels to "Analyze This," "Austin Powers," "Men in Black," "Spy Kids," "Star Trek," "Stuart Little" and the new James Bond movie -- which started filming Monday in England.
Sequels -- although no sure thing when it comes to money-making -- have proved to be pretty reliable profit centers when handled right. The idea is to capitalize on the awareness created by the commercial success of the original, and give the market more of what it has amply demonstrated that it wants.
There have been misfires to be sure, but the track record for sequels is generally positive.
Last year's "Scary Movie 2" grossed less than half the amount its predecessor took in the previous year -- $71.3 million vs. $157 million. On the other hand, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" grossed more in its first weekend ($54.9 million) than the original "Austin Powers" movie grossed in its entire run ($53 million), and went on to take in $205.4 million in 1999.
Many of the Top 50 U.S. box-office hits of all-time are sequels -- including "The Spy Who Shagged Me," "Toy Story 2," "Rush Hour 2," "The Mummy Returns," "Lost World: Jurassic Park," two Indiana Jones movies and three "Star Wars" pictures. Half of last year's top 10 box-office hits -- "Rush Hour 2," "Jurassic Park III," "The Mummy Returns," "Hannibal" and "American Pie 2" -- were sequels.
There are indications that Hollywood executives have begun to take a good thing for granted, though.
One box-office analyst told the Times that if a sequel only grosses two-thirds as much as its predecessor, it's regarded as a "major failure" -- even if it makes money.
All of which supports the contention of Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, who once observed that "nobody in Hollywood knows anything."
The only way to measure a hit -- or to measure profits, for that matter -- is to take a product into the marketplace, run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes. Or, more to the point, how many people are willing pay the price of admission.