March 11, 1996 12:00 PM

>The Academy Awards

AN OFF YEAR FOR THE OSCARS?

HOW BIG WERE LAST YEAR’S ACADEMY Awards? With host David Letterman making a much-anticipated debut, Elton John singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King, and an emotional thank you by Tom Hanks for winning Best Actor in Forrest Gump, the 67th annual Oscars drew a whopping 80 million U.S. viewers, the most since 1983, when Terms of Endearment swept five statuettes. To the delight of ABC, which broadcast the event, the Awards telecast was the second-highest-rated TV show of 1995. But this year, Oscar seems a bit… down. Such art-house films as Leaving Las Vegas, Dead Man Walking and The Postman are major contenders, Letterman has been replaced by ho-hum ex-host Whoopi Goldberg, and Hanks, who starred in Apollo 13, has been upstaged by the farm animals of Babe. More than ever before, the Oscars (March 25, 9 p.m. ET) risk alienating the mass audience. Should ABC be nervous?

According to the experts, that depends on how you look at things. ABC “might have been happier” with more high-profile nominations, says Steve Sternberg of the BJK&E Media Group. But even with a lackluster star roster, says Gene DeWitt of DeWitt Media, an advertising-consulting firm, ratings ought to hold up. Think of a lopsided Super Bowl: on one hand, people tune out; on the other, it is the Super Bowl. “Even if you lose a few percent,” DeWitt says, “it’s still going to be one of the highest-rated events of the year.”

And what about the advertisers who last fall forked over $685,000 for 30-second spots? If the show fares poorly, ABC may find it harder to sell time next year. Still, some sponsors claim that the Oscars will remain a golden opportunity. “I’m not sure it’s my dream telecast,” says Mike Neavill, media director for AT&T, “but it draws an audience that doesn’t watch a lot of TV—what we call the light television viewer. It’s a really efficient way to reach people you normally don’t reach.” And besides, Babe may not be such a turnoff after all. Says Chuck Ross, media director of Advertising Age: “We’re all pulling for the pig, aren’t we?”

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