The winner is ... not you, if you bought Oscars

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Advertisers are paying more for the Oscars this year than last, but they're likely to get a smaller audience.

With small, independent movies like "Capote" and "The Squid and the Whale," and character actors like Laura Linney and David Strathairn likely to rack up nominations, this year's Academy Awards could be long on artistic achievement but short on mainstream muscle. Complicating matters further are last year's box-office malaise, in which even the most fervent moviegoers shunned the multiplex, and an untested new host, comedian Jon Stewart.

`It's the gestalt'

Advertisers are paying an average $1.7 million for a 30-second spot in the show, which will air March 5 on ABC, about a 6% increase from last year. Spots in the scatter market are fetching between $1.5 million and $2 million, media buyers said.

Most advertisers buy time in the Oscars four or five months ahead, executives said, and many return year after year because of its sizeable female audience. There are new advertisers in this year's Academy Awards, though ABC executives declined to identify them. The show is nearly 100% sold.

"It's the totality of the event that draws in advertisers," said Geri Wang, ABC's senior VP-prime-time ad sales. "It's the gestalt of the show, not the individual titles."

The Oscars is traditionally the highest-rated entertainment show of the year on any network, commanding ad prices second only to the Super Bowl.

Advertisers in last year's Academy Awards included heavyweights like American Express, General Motors, MasterCard, J.C. Penney Co., McDonald's, L'Oreal, Anheuser-Busch and Procter & Gamble. They're all expected to come back this spring. Coca-Cola Co. will replace Pepsi in the soda category, using the Oscars to reach the 30-40-year-old demo with Diet Coke ads.

The so-called Super Bowl for women has dropped 13 million viewers from the record viewing of the late `90s, when "Titanic" swept the awards after hauling in $600 million in U.S. box office. Ratings tend to be higher in blockbuster movie years-43.5 million people watched two years ago when "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" won best picture.

Despite last year's controversial choice of Chris Rock as host, who was intended to draw in a younger, larger audience, ratings were down 5% overall and 3% in the ad-coveted 18-49-year-old demographic. Just over 42 million people, more than half of them women, watched the Oscars. This year, there are a number of factors working against the ratings.

Some buyers suggest the lack of blockbuster films this year isn't the only worry ABC might have in selling advertising in the event. There's also lots of competition for marketers' purses. "This is a very difficult quarter to sell big tickets," said Scott Haugenes, senior VP-group director of national broadcast at Initiative. "You've got Olympics, Super Bowl, Academy Awards, Daytona 500, the NCAA tournament ... and `American Idol' starting again."

Of the films likely to be nominated, only Fox's "Walk the Line" has been commercially successful, even though it pales when compared to traditional blockbusters. Most of the critically lauded movies have had limited release, like "Brokeback Mountain" and "Good Night, and Good Luck," and few have come anywhere near $50 million in box office.

"It'll be down 10% or up 10%, but it'll still be the highest rated non-Super Bowl show of the year," said Magna Global's Exec VP-Audience Analysis Steve Sternberg. "It's a big event and even if it's lower rated it's still going to be a big event."

Contributing: Jean Halliday and Stephanie Thompson

Who's in

* American Express

* Anheuser-Busch

* Coca-Cola Co.

* General Motors

* MasterCard

* J.C. Penney Co.

* McDonald’s

* L’Oreal

* Procter & Gamble

A.M.P.A.S.

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