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Hyundai, Sprint, JC Penney Hope for Big Oscars Even Without Blockbuster Nominees

Ratings Wobble Based on 'Best Picture' Slate, but Audience Still Hard to Ignore

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'The Artist' is one of the nominees for 'Best Picture.'
'The Artist' is one of the nominees for 'Best Picture.'

Advertisers including Hyundai, Sprint and JC Penney Co.are betting on this year's Academy Awards broadcast even though this year's nominees for "Best Picture" are largely smaller films, which could dampen the program's broader appeal.

Ratings for the Oscars telecast, set for Feb. 26 on Walt Disney's ABC, tend to hinge on the "Best Picture" slate. The entrants are "War Horse," "The Artist," "The Descendants," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "The Help," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," and "The Tree of Life." All have been relatively well-received, but nowhere near the level of a "Titanic" or "Dark Knight ."

That's the dilemma faced by every Oscars broadcast. For advertisers, the category might be the Best TV Show to Be in Even Though Ratings Often Vary Widely Year-to-Year.

Viewership usually tumbles when those getting the nod for the top award are "arty" films targeted at older audiences, but ratings go up when nominees are blockbusters tailored for the masses. In 1998, for example, about 55 million people tuned in to see the crowd-pleasing "Titanic" win Best Picture. In 2003, only 33 million watched as "Chicago" grabbed the statuette.

For advertisers, however, the Oscars show can draw a relatively big audience. That's especially important now, when getting your ad in front of a large crowd is harder than ever. "We know that even when the number bounces up and down a little bit, it still has terrific value for us," said Steve Shannon, VP-marketing at Hyundai Motor America. The automaker, which is entering its fourth year as the Oscars' exclusive car sponsor, expects to show eight 30-second spots during the broadcast, said Mr. Shannon: four aimed at launching the 2012 Azera, two to bolster its Genesis and two for Equus.

Advertisers also appreciate that the program tilts toward females. Hyundai intends to talk about such qualities as luxury and design, he said, or the "quietness and serenity" of the Azera cabin -- attributes that might appeal to women slightly more than men.

ABC, which has sold out the event's ad inventory, had been seeking $1.6 million to $1.7 million for a 30-second spot during the Oscar broadcast, according to ad buyers familiar with negotiations. That figure is roughly flat with last year, when the Walt Disney network sought about $1.7 million.

Oscar ad prices swooned in 2009, when the recession, ratings and other factors sent the price of a 30-second spot down to about $1.3 million. Oscar's standing in the ad community has improved since that time, but the price of an ad in the broadcast has yet to regain its level in 2008, when ads were selling for about $1.8 million for 30 seconds of ad time.

Other Oscars advertisers include American Express, AT&T , Kraft Foods, MetLife, McDonald's and Paramount Picutres, ABC disclosed on Wednesday. A handful of sponsors were previously spotted running ads on the Oscars web site, including Hyundai and Sprint; Sprint was not immediately able to respond to a request for comment.

JC Penney , which has been a sponsor since 2002, is expected to use the Oscars to promote a recent marketplace repositioning, according to a report issued Tuesday by Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending. Coca-Cola -- particularly Diet Coke -- has also been a strong Oscars sponsor. Last year the company bought two and a half minutes of ad time, valued at $7.8 million, Kantar said.

One interesting element of the Oscars' appeal is a mandate by the governing body, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, that the telecast not have too much advertising. In the past decade, the number of minutes devoted to ads has remained steady, at 8 to 10 an hour, according to Kantar. The Super Bowl, meanwhile, contains about 13 minutes to 14 minutes an hour, while a more traditional hour of prime-time programming usually contains between 14 minute and 16 minutes.

After seeing viewership dip as low as 32 million in 2008 (from 38.9 million in 2007), the academy moved to turn things around in 2010 by expanding the number of Best Picture contenders and make room for more blockbusters. As many as 10 films could be nominated -- the first time in six decades that a field wider than five nominees was allowed.

Whether the gambit will ultimately work is still unclear. About 37.9 million people tuned in to see "The King's Speech" win in the Best Picture category on ABC's 2011 broadcast of The Academy Awards, according to Nielsen, while 41.7 million had tuned in to see "The Hurt Locker" take the evening in 2010.

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