ABC takes risk on early Oscars

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On Feb. 29, ABC takes a crack at the great prime-time paradigm shift, airing the Academy Awards one month earlier than usual, in keeping with a recent trend of broadcast networks moving the conventional program calendar in an effort to troll for large numbers of viewers.

Fox already tinkered with scheduling tradition last year, launching its hit "The O.C." during the summer, and NBC plans to introduce its 2004 fall lineup two weeks earlier than the traditional fall season. Oscar advertisers, who invested $1.5 million per :30, will be watching closely to see if the Academy Awards' own time-shift experiment works. If not, millions of dollars of make-goods are at stake.

"We are trying to drive the largest audience that we can to the show so that advertisers really feel they got the best value," said Mike Benson, ABC's senior VP-marketing, advertising and promotion. "This early date will help the material feel fresher."

The earlier airing will also help the Oscars compete with the Golden Globes, which airs in January, and the Grammys, Directors Guild and Writers Guild Awards, which take place in February.

Advertisers who are booked for the sold-out 76th annual event are for the most part incumbents. General Motors, the exclusive Oscar auto marketer will promote Cadillac with a :30 in the show preview broadcast and eight :30 slots during show; Anheuser-Busch will push Budweiser and Bud Light brands; PepsiCo, the exclusive beverage advertiser in the show, will promote brand Pepsi; McDonald's Corp. will showcase the "I'm lovin' it" campaign. Spots will also appear from AOL Time Warner, Home Depot, Eastman Kodak, JCPenney, Procter & Gamble Co. and American Express. ABC sold many of the ads during the upfront this year, a departure from how the show was sold previously; there was no inventory left by September.

The Oscars last year posted its lowest 18-49 numbers ever, with a 12.5 share and 30 rating, down from a 16.1 rating and 39 share in 2002. The network blamed the loss in viewers to the war in Iraq, but some media buyers suggested the show over the years had become irrelevant, dull and too long.

"This year you have some blockbuster films ... it absolutely helps the ratings," Mr. Benson said. "But we want to look at this like the Super Bowl: Sometimes it doesn't matter what the teams are, it's an event that you just have to watch."

ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are spending about $10 million to market the show with spots, billboards and retail promotions. Last year, the Oscars pulled in 33.1 million viewers, off from the year before, when 41.8 million watched.

"The Oscars draw an upscale audience," said Geri Wang, senior VP-prime time sales, ABC. "We know that many heads of corporations who may not watch TV sit down for this one. We call it a `special special."'

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