While host Queen Latifah offered one reason the two-hour show couldn't succumb to the strike -- such as the fact that more than 10 million people already had cast votes online for winners -- another reason may be brand integrations that couldn't easily be unwound.
Procter & Gamble Co. brands Pantene and Crest had integrations set for the ceremonies, linked with drug chain and fellow show advertiser CVS, which already had touted the awards in Dec. 30 coupon circulars and is set to feature the P&G-sponsored award program again in its circular Jan. 13.
And so comes the answer to the age-old question: What if there was a brand integration and nobody came? Well, almost nobody. P&G and its TV production unit reconfigured the integrations for an awards ceremony with no red carpet, no live acceptance speeches and no studio audience as the Queen held court in an empty studio.
A bit of scrambling
It involved a bit of scrambling. P&G Productions scrapped what was to have been a live presentation on the red carpet for the first person granted a wish through a Pantene Wishes promotion; P&G also kicked off a new web effort for the program by Resource Interactive, Columbus, which also revamped the People's Choice Awards digital efforts this year.
In lieu of the live presentation, Access Hollywood host and Pantene Wishes front-woman Maria Menounos instead taped a presentation at the red-carpet opening of the film "27 Dresses" in December, featuring plugs for retail partner CVS as well.
But the surprise winner in the show's brand-integration derby may have been the Writer's Guild of America. The WGA managed to get its message woven throughout the two-hour telecast as winning actors Joaquin Phoenix, Robin Williams and Reese Witherspoon, among others, went out of their way to either overtly or obliquely show solidarity with striking writers in their pre-recorded acceptance speeches.
Mr. Phoenix held up handwritten notes on cardboard declaring himself speechless because of the strike. Mr. Williams was said to have lost his voice as he stood alongside fellow entertainers on tour with the USO in Afghanistan.
"With no red carpet, no live audience, no attending celebrities and no reason for host Queen Latifah to be as giddy as she was, the broadcast had the look and feel of a cable-access retrospective," wrote Toronto Star columnist Vinay Menon. "The [acceptance] speeches were delivered with all the spirit and energy of political hostages."
Blow to ratings
But the non-captive audience voted with its feet, or at least its remotes. The show's overnight Nielsen ratings were roughly half what they had been last year and declined steadily over the course of the two-hour broadcast from a 5.5 rating and an 8 share during the first half hour to a 3.3 rating and 5 share the final half hour. The show lost out to a "House" rerun on Fox, which itself had ratings about half what a fresh episode drew last year.
The strike dimmed what had been a comeback for the People's Choice Awards. The 33-year-old product of P&G Productions is in year two of a turnaround effort to reverse declining ratings and create more year-round and cross-platform power for the franchise, which this year, as always, is largely a showcase for P&G advertising (CVS and Mars' M&Ms were the other primary sponsors this year on TV and online).
"We feel really proud of the show we produced, and we feel it's the best show we could have done, especially given the time frame and the circumstances," said a spokeswoman for P&G Productions. "Overall, we felt it went pretty well."
The second year of online voting for the awards resulted in more than 10 million votes, beating last year's number despite the impending format change, a P&G spokeswoman said. Data from Alexa.com indicate the show's website, PCAvote.com, had generated the most pre-show traffic since 2005, and possibly ever.
And despite the ratings decline, the site's unique visitors during the show were up about 25% this year, compared to a 30% increase over last year's traffic figures overall, a person familiar with the matter said.
That would appear to bode well for efforts to make PCAvote.com a year-round destination, offering the lure of popular culture without the sometimes advertiser-unfriendly sleaze of gossip sites and blogs. The site has accumulated a community of around 80,000 members to date and looks to keep growing that number, and keep them involved year-round, in part by encouraging them to participate in the Knowledge Networks online panel that helps select award nominees. It's also looking to get community members to vote on monthly People's Choice favorites in movies, music and TV.
But with TV viewership halved, the People's Choice experience offers a sobering glimpse of what could await advertisers on February's Academy Awards, often seen as the Super Bowl for women, should ABC and the Motion Picture Academy decide to move forward with an altered format.
P&G, with its bevy of well-funded brands for women, long has been the heavyweight advertiser on awards shows, using category exclusives to block rivals in many cases. That it has backed off some of those exclusives in recent years to permit more ads from rivals L'Oreal and Unilever on ABC's Academy Awards could prove something of a boon this year, should the strike continue.
Unilever's flagship Dove, for example, has one of its major integrated efforts for the winter wrapped up in the Academy Awards, with a consumer-created ad to be voted on by consumers set to launch during the ceremony this year.
Harder to reach female audiences
The destruction or scattering of female viewership for awards shows comes just as the busiest season for product launches in hair and skin care arrives, so that erosion clearly presents some challenges for P&G and its rivals alike. Alternatives, such as fresh scripted dramas and comedies that also draw disproportionately female audiences, are also dwindling because of the writers strike.
P&G, which outspends its next three largest rivals combined on TV, could find it particularly tough to find enough make-goods to execute all of its media plans, though a spokeswoman said the company continues to work with networks and believes it will be able to meet all its needs.