On Feb. 11, Paramount's Entertainment Tonight kicked off its Academy Awards—from O'Hare Airport. Correspondent Kevin Frazier flew with boxloads of Oscar statues from the Chicago factory that makes them to Tinseltown, where they will be awarded at the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 27.
That was just one of hundreds of stories that will run virtually wall to wall this month on syndicated entertainment shows, cable networks and just about everywhere else on TV. For one month, the TV industry goes to extremes to cover Oscar, just as Hollywood studios rally to get votes for their nominees.
“The Oscars is a cultural phenomenon,” says Beth Harris, director of marketing for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “It's an American event, and now it's a worldwide event. I work with 134 different media outlets all over the world.”
It is a publicity mill, for sure. Every syndicated magazine show and a healthy handful of cable networks cover Hollywood's big night relentlessly in the weeks between the nominations and the awards, culminating in a post-Oscar evening that's always among the highest-rated TV events of the year.
In the past two years, the academy stepped up its own promotional efforts. For the 2003 Oscars, the academy scheduled the show a month earlier, at the end of February sweeps. (The move effectively shortened the studios' “campaign” season.)
It also moved the ceremony to Sunday from Monday, because more people watch TV on Sunday than any other night.
This year, for the first time, the academy has launched an outdoor advertising campaign in New York and Los Angeles.
“We have tall walls and phone kiosks, video walls in Times Square and mall kiosks,” Harris says. “The outdoor advertising is completely new for us.”
Besides the show's promotion on ABC and Disney-owned cable networks such as ESPN, the academy is working with media buyer OMD to place promotion on radio and in print, including in such publications as O magazine, People, US Weekly, Jet, Rolling Stone, New York magazine and Teen People.
The academy arranged an exclusive deal with King World's The Oprah Winfrey Show. Right after the nominees were announced, Winfrey talked to several of them on her show, and the talk queen will broadcast from the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 28. She's also running a special Oscar sweepstakes.
Cable Goes Crazy for Oscar
E! Entertainment plans 10 straight hours of coverage in standard- and high-definition TV before and after the show. The network is partnering with the academy for the first time, creating interstitials that feature memorable Oscar moments, branded with the tagline “E! Celebrates the Oscars.”
“The academy gave us footage they never release,” says Ted Harbert, president and CEO of E! Networks. “We have Denzel Washington winning Best Actor, Halle Berry's really emotional speech after winning for Monster's Ball, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon winning for Good Will Hunting, and Roberto Benigni climbing over the wall after he won for Life Is Beautiful.”
The View co-host Star Jones Reynolds and comedian Kathy Griffin will be behind the microphones instead of Joan and Melissa Rivers, who jumped to the revamped TV Guide Channel earlier this year.
“Star has reverence and enthusiasm, which the stars like. But not taking it so seriously is important as well, which is why we have Kathy—to have some fun with it,” Harbert says.
In addition to the mother-and-daughter Rivers team, TV Guide Channel has designed its program guide so that Oscar-nominated films are highlighted in gold during February.
Turner Classic Movies has become well-known for its 31 Days of Oscar, which it decided to maintain even after the ceremony was moved to the end of February. Its promotion, which includes showing 365 films, runs from Feb. 1 through March 3—past Oscar night itself. TCM also has spruced up its Web site, giving characters from famous movies their own Web pages, complete with blogs.
This year, JC Penney is sponsoring the promotion with its “The Biggest Star” sweepstakes. The winner gets $100,000 and a trip to the red carpet.
AMC, the retooled movie channel, is running Academy Award-nominated films Feb. 21-27 and featuring a sweepstakes with a beauty makeover, Hollywood-style.
And CNN also is getting into Oscar action, launching its new prime time entertainment show, Showbiz Tonight, on Headline News, just six days before the award show.
“This really is the evolution and growth of CNN Headline News as a network,” says Dave Levine, the show's executive producer. “Entertainment news used to be a gossipy, guilty pleasure, but it's crossed the threshold into news.”
That's also how ABC sees it, apparently. Two weeks ago, ABC's venerable Nightline went to the war-torn and famine-ravished Sudan with Hotel Rwanda star Don Cheadle, although that hardly seemed like pre-Oscar publicity.
Not that there isn't enough to go around, right up to an hour before showtime, when ABC's Barbara Walters interviews Ray's Jamie Foxx, comedian Will Ferrell and Desperate Housewives' Teri Hatcher.
Over at Entertainment Tonight on Oscar night, anchor Mary Hart will be perched above the action at the Kodak. After the show, she'll plant herself at the Vanity Fair party. ET's Mark Steines and The Insider's Lara Spencer will be on the red carpet, while Jann Carl hosts ABC's pre-show. TheInsider's Pat O'Brien will live up to his show's name: He's backstage on Oscar night.
“We have a new combined clout on the red carpet now that we have both ET and The Insider,” says Terry Wood, new president of creative affairs and development for King World Productions and Paramount Domestic Television. “The people who produce these awards shows and the stars' publicists understand what that hour means. They know that, with us, they are going to get the most for their time spent.”
ET, Insider, Access Hollywood and Inside Edition don't get to make their Oscar mark until the next day, and making a massively covered event fresh is a tall task.
“It's a question of how you take that material and make it special,” Wood says. “It's not about gimmicks. It's about solid coverage that gives viewers a takeaway the next day.”
Scoops aren't easy. Senior Correspondent Jim Moret will lead the coverage for King World's Inside Edition, a show that is less Hollywood-focused than the other syndie magazines. He'll cover fashion hits and misses and look back at the early TV careers of some of the nominated stars.
NBC Universal's Access Hollywood will unleash what it calls its Access Surprise Team.
“All that these guys are doing right now is searching for people and things that we can bring with us, fly in, have in our one-on-one room or hook up via telephone or satellite,” says Rob Silverstein, Access' executive producer. “We're all about surprises, stuff that nobody else has.”
While Access seeks surprise, Warner Bros.' Extra wants to create “magic moments,” says Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, the show's senior executive producer.
In one of those instances at an earlier awards show, Extra reunited Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet—both of whom are nominated this year.
“We've almost never been disappointed,” Gregorisch-Dempsey says. “When you have that many big stars in your universe, something is bound to happen.”