You Missed The Movies, But ABC Wants You To See The Show

Network has tough promo job in Oscar year without a blockbuster hit

ABC hopes its Feb. 27 Oscarcast is so much fun to watch viewers might forget they haven’t seen most of the movies up for major awards. With the irrepressible Chris Rock as host of the 77th annual Academy Awards, the network is gambling it can reverse the ratings slide that has afflicted a spate of recent awards specials.

The fact is, the Oscarcast is the gold standard of award shows, and ABC, which has been the home of the show for 30 years, earlier this month renewed its contract through 2014. The special is still TV’s biggest entertainment event and usually is second only to the Super Bowl in overall viewership. (A commercial during Super Bowl XXXIX this month cost $2.4 million; Oscar has sold out its 30-second spots at $1.6 million each.)

But ratings for awards shows are in trouble. The 18-49 audience for CBS’ airing of the Grammy Awards on Feb. 13 was down 25% from last year; its ratings were the lowest in a decade. The audience for the Emmys dropped 35% from 2003 in the 18-49 demo. The Golden Globes plunged 42% in that demographic. “People are worried about how the awards shows are doing,” acknowledges ABC SVP of Marketing Mike Benson.

The Envelope, Please...

This year’s Oscar show, in other words, is swimming upstream. Oscar hit its low point in 2003, with 33 million viewers, when the awards show aired just as the U.S. went to war in Iraq. Last year, the 11-Oscar sweep by Lord of the Rings: Return of the King propped the telecast up to 43.5 million, but the show hasn’t seen Titanic ratings since 1998, when James Cameron’s epic made him “king of the world.”

That’s the problem: This year, there’s no hugely popular movie to bring in an audience. The most commercial of the nominated films is Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, which had a box office of $76 million as of Feb. 7, with Ray just behind at $74 million. By Oscar time last year, Return of the King had pulled in more than $300 million in the U.S. alone.

“We’re working to create the sense that it’s a horse race,” Benson says. “It’s fine to sell all of the stars that are going to be there, but at the end of the day, people open the envelope and see who the winner is.”

To bring in younger viewers, ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hired Rock as master of ceremonies—an edgy choice for a show that has been burned before. (Remember David Letterman?) Rock has already gotten started. On Jan. 21, the Drudge Report said last week, Rock joked to a group of foreign journalists: “What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars? Show me one.” Oscar officials, for the record, laughed it off.

“Chris’ comments over the past few weeks are meant to be humorous digs at a show that some people, obviously including Chris himself, think may be a bit too stuffy,” says the show’s executive producer, Gil Cates. And it did appear ABC might be using Rock to create a little pre-show controversy. In a scheduled appearance on 60 Minutes Feb. 20, Rock, for example, promises he won’t swear on the Oscarcast but says he’s happy ABC is employing a short time delay on the telecast.

Target: Young Viewers

“We want to feel like it’s going to be a different show,” Benson says. The network is marketing the program with the tagline “Oscar Rocks,” letting the viewers know that Rock will be there to make them laugh if things get slow. Rock, not the movies, is the focus of the promo campaign, which features him riffing one-liners. In some promos, AC/DC’s “We Will Rock You” plays in the background, and on spots running on ESPN, hip-hop star P. Diddy appears with Rock.

“We’re taking a little more of a youthful approach to it,” Benson says. “I think you can absolutely be controversial in a very tasteful way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with challenging the audience a little bit.”

Says E! Entertainment President Ted Harbert, “Chris Rock is exactly the right direction to go. It’s great if he’s controversial. He’s on live television, but he’s going to do what he wants.”

ABC hopes promoting the Oscars on hot shows like Desperate Housewives and Lost will help drive Oscar viewing. The network started its on-air drive Jan. 27.

In general, ABC has been taking a different approach to all of its marketing this year, focusing on just a few shows. It’s doing the same with the Academy Awards.

“We are selecting messages that are going to get through to audiences whether we are running a spot one time or 100 times,” Benson says. “We want to make sure that people walk away with the right message.

“This is going to be a great, entertaining show,” he adds. “Gil Cates is going to put on a very exciting program with a viable, fresh, young host. We want audiences to say, 'I don’t care who wins, I just want to see who wins.’”

And ABC just wants people to watch.