ABC Is Big Oscar-Night Winner

Telecast is sold out—a month earlier, at rates 10% higher than in 2002

ABC's Academy Awards telecast—which draws the largest female audience in the TV season outside the Super Bowl—is sold out, at rates about 10% above last year. For the night, the network is expected to rake in close to $90 million in advertising, including the pre-awards show and the Barbara Walters special (featuring nominees Julianne Moore and Renée Zellweger and non-nominee Nicolas Cage) that precedes it.

A sign of TV's improved ad climate: The telecast sold out about a month earlier than last year's show and at higher rates despite last year's all time low rating (25.4 rating/42 share, according to Nielsen Media Research).

Oscar's huge Female Audience

Part of the ratings problem last year was that the show ran way past most bedtimes: It didn't end until 12:45 a.m. ET. This year, ABC says efforts will be made to keep it shorter, but, as with any live broadcast, there are no guarantees.

The big draw for advertisers is the huge female audience. Last year, 26 million females watched the Oscars, roughly 62% of the audience. "That's our core customer," says J.C. Penney spokeswoman Stephanie Brown, explaining why the retailer is advertising for a second year.

Most of this year's advertisers—Pepsi and General Motors are also among them—are incumbents from last year. Mike Shaw, president of sales for ABC, says that's normal, unlike last year when close to half the sponsors were new. The churn, he said, had to do with all the friction in the marketplace between sellers and buyers. The latter had forced price reductions in ad rates in the previous upfront; ABC took a tougher stand on Oscar pricing but still cut prices by 5% (on average) for spots in last year's telecast.

The average cost per 30-second unit in this year's telecast is between $1.3 million and $1.4 million, according to sources familiar with the pricing. Shaw would not confirm ad rates. Last year, the average per-unit rate was $1.29 million, according to Nielsen Media Research ad tracker Monitor-Plus.

And the sponsors are...

New advertisers to the telecast this year are financial-service companies AIG, Washington Mutual and Charles Schwab, as well as AOL. And Procter & Gamble is back in the fold after sitting out last year.

Among other returning sponsors are American Express, Anheuser-Busch, Kodak, Mastercard, and McDonald's. Kodak also gets built-in marquee value: The awards ceremony originates from the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.

Pepsi will break an ad campaign with pop artist Beyoncé Knowles, who signed an endorsement deal late last year. Most of the other advertisers will also be introducing ads in the show. "It's not required, but it's expected," said Rick Robertson, executive administrator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which oversees the telecast and has final approval of both the advertisers and ad content allowed in the show.

There are certain products you just won't see advertised in the program because the Academy forbids them, including most "personal care" items such as deodorants and feminine-hygiene products. Robertson says those restrictions are aimed at maintaining "a sense of class and elegance to the event." Speaking of which, remember that recent ad in which two buxom babes argue whether a beer is less filling or tastes good and end up ripping their clothes off and wrestling in the mud? It's a "pretty safe bet" you won't see anything like that during the Oscars, says Robertson.

Movie studios are strictly forbidden to advertise any of their products, including films, theme parks, DVDs and videotapes. That's to avoid any suggestion that filmmakers could buy their way to the acceptance podium, says Robertson. Indeed, he said, one commercial spot was rejected this year because it featured a theme park as background even though the advertised product was unrelated to it and was not distributed by a media company.

Praying for peace

People at the Academy and ABC are praying (for lots of reasons) that war doesn't break out anytime near the start of Oscar weekend; the telecast is Sunday, March 23. Pundits speculate that hostilities could occur in mid to late March.

The Academy is on record saying that it intends to proceed with the awards ceremony on the scheduled date, although Robertson acknowledges that, if there is a ceremony, it will be in conjunction with a live broadcast. Thus, if ABC has to preempt the telecast in the event of war, the show would have to be postponed.

It wouldn't be the first time. The show has been postponed three times: in 1938, when severe floods hit Los Angeles; in 1968, when the original date sadly coincided with the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and in 1981, when an attempt was made on the life of President Ronald Reagan.

"For now, we're saying we intend to stage the event as planned," said Robertson.

Rescheduling the awards ceremony would be a logistical nightmare and could hurt the viewership. That was the experience with the 2001 Emmy Awards, which was postponed twice after 9/11 and ended up facing Game 7 of the World Series. Needless to say, the ratings suffered.