And the winner is ... ABC

Oscar ad time sells out a month earlier than last year at rates just 5% off

ABC has a load of prime time problems, but the upcoming Oscars telecast doesn't appear to be one of them. Advertising commitments held up well compared with last year. And now network officials are praying that viewership for the film industry's annual salute to itself holds up better than the Grammys telecast on CBS did a couple of weeks ago.

Advertisers, though, are betting that Oscar remains a hugely watched TV event. ABC sold out its commercial time in this year's Oscars telecast about a month ahead of last year. And it did so at an average rate of $1.25 million per 30-second spot, down just 5% from a year ago.

Last year's Oscars telecast was low on the suspense meter, ABC says, but still grabbed a 26.2 rating and 40 share in households and a 17.8 rating in the lucrative 18-49 demos. It averaged 42.9 million viewers, but 72.2 million saw some portion of it, Nielsen says.

ABC officials say they're satisfied with ad sales this year, given the depressed ad economy. Between the Oscars and the Barbara Walters special that leads into it, the network will rake in almost $80 million for the night, sources say.

Geri Wang, senior vice president, prime time sales, wouldn't comment on specific sales figures. "But we're really pleased" with sales for the show, she said, suggesting that the sales are "a sign of strength" in the ad marketplace.

The Oscars telecast is the single biggest entertainment event of the year for drawing the female audience that many advertisers covet. Patrick Conboy, vice president, strategic marketing, for J.C. Penney, calls the telecast "the Super Bowl for women. It's a place where fashion, culture and style converge. That's what middle America looks for at the Academy Awards and is why we want to be part of it." Penney is using the night to unveil a spot promoting its 100th anniversary.

ABC has landed nine new advertisers for this year's telecast on March 24, including Apple computer, UPS and regional phone company Verizon. It also snagged two new categories: retailers, represented by Penney, and personal appliances, with Salton advertising its Ultrasonic electric toothbrush.

The network has 20 sponsors altogether, compared with 19 last year.

Other advertisers besides Penney are debuting spots in the Oscars telecast. MasterCard is introducing two: one to promote its debit card; and one, part of its "priceless" campaign, featuring dogs behaving badly.

Pepsi will unveil a new spot with supermodel Cindy Crawford to introduce a new look for Diet Pepsi. Viewers with long memories may see something familiar about it. Pepsi's Dave DeCecco says that, 10 years ago, Crawford did a similar ad for a new look for regular Pepsi. The new ad will feature the same "Just One Look" theme song and Crawford poised (in similar jeans and tank top) to make her selection from a vending machine. Pepsi even hired the same producer to do the new ad.

For other advertisers, the program is one of a handful they're using to extend campaigns launched in the Super Bowl or the Olympics. General Motors, for example, bought eight units in the Oscars telecast, seven devoted to a Cadillac campaign that kicked in during this year's Super Bowl. UPS will continue its "brown" campaign, which it launched during the Olympics.

Kodak is back this year as a sponsor, with one less spot but a far bigger presence: The Oscar show will originate from the brand-new Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. The company bought the rights to the name for 20 years, and ABC is contractually required to mention the name of the theater a certain number of times throughout the telecast.