Oscars on TV: Leading the Way for Award Shows

Feb 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek

Oscar night will look a little different this year. Just how different is still up in the air, but the Feb. 27 telecast on ABC will have its share of unique moments, producer Gilbert Cates said.

“I enjoy surprising the audience with something they have never seen before, which, of course, predisposes me not to reveal what I am planning this time around,” he said.

Mr. Cates, who is producing his record 12th Academy Awards telecast, did drop a few clues. Look for best picture candidates to be highlighted as a group, going against the grain of recent Oscar programs.

“We decided a few years back to divide it up and do each film separately during the show, but now all the awards shows are doing that, so we are not doing it this year,” Mr. Cates said.

He also hinted that this year’s event would revert to a longstanding tradition of having a male announcer as Oscar’s offstage voice. “We had the first woman announcer [Los Angeles DJ Randy Thomas] a few years ago. Now all the [awards] shows do it,” he said.

Mr. Cates said he is saving the biggest surprises for Oscar night, when more than 1 billion people across the globe are expected to tune in. The telecast is huge for Hollywood and for ABC, which has carried the annual gala since 1976.

“How can you not be thrilled about having the Oscars on your network? It is far and away the most prestigious, most respected and most watched awards show on television,” said Andrea Wong, executive VP of alternative programming, specials and late-night for ABC Entertainment.

ABC executives would not comment on the amount of ad revenue the network expects to rake in, but media buyers said the price of a 30-second commercial remains roughly equivalent to last year’s estimated $1.5 million. With about 60 spots in the show, the potential revenue of $90 million makes Oscar a pretty lucrative one-night stand.

A big money night for the network is even more rewarding for ABC affiliates.

“This will be our single biggest billing night for the first half of the year, and for some stations, it’s their single biggest night of the entire year,” said Frank Biancuzzo, general manager at WISN-TV in Milwaukee.

Local stations will receive 16 to 20 positions to peddle at plum prices, but that’s only the beginning.

“We can sell the surrounding programming at a premium, including our newscasts, ‘Good Morning America’ the next day [and] ‘Entertainment Tonight’ the night before,” Mr. Biancuzzo said. Oscar night also presents stations with an important promotional vehicle, especially with upscale female viewers, who are likely to tune in in droves.

But Oscar’s coattails are not as strong as they once were. Gone are the days when the broadcast would draw two-thirds of all television households. Ratings have declined in seven of the past 10 years and fell to an all-time low of 33.1 million viewers in 2003, a year marred by the advent of the war in Iraq. Last year’s telecast recovered nicely, drawing 43.5 million, still far short of 1998’s record 55.3 million. Still, traditionally it’s television’s biggest ratings grabber each year after the Super Bowl.

“It is one of those shows that kind of defies all the media choices and fractionalization, and one of the few shows that will deliver a 20 rating this season,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP of audience research at Horizon Media.

Mr. Cates has a new host to work with this year. Comedian Chris Rock has been tapped in an attempt to attract younger viewers, particular males. He will also likely draw some video voyeurs who check in just to see how his sometimes ribald humor goes over in an era of heightened concern over broadcast indecency.

ABC used a five-second delay for the first time on last year’s broadcast, a move Mr. Cates said he hopes the network will not repeat.

“It’s a damn shame,” he said. “I am against it, and the academy is against it. How do you distinguish between a delay for a joke versus a delay for a political observation? Whoever has their finger on that button is going to have a real serious responsibility.”

Mr. Cates declined to reveal the program’s production budget, saying only that the range for awards shows of this scale goes from a “low of $4 million and up.”

He also refused to speculate about how long he intends to keep working on the Academy Awards telecast. The founder and former dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television, he remains artistic director and president of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

While he said he tries to reinvent the program every time he’s involved with it, Mr. Cates will retain one post-Oscar tradition-a “postmortem” breakfast with key staff members at a deli near the Kodak Theatre, where the ceremony takes place. He said he’s also fairly certain about his plans for the following couple of days.

“I hope to be sleeping in,” he said.

‘The 77th Annual Academy Awards’

Host: Chris Rock

Producer: Gilbert Cates

Broadcast date and time: Feb. 27, 8 p.m. (ET)

Network: ABC

Production budget: At least $4 million

Cost of a 30-second commercial: About $1.5 million

Size of production crew: About 60 nontechnical plus around 250 technical people

Number of countries tuning in live: 150 (estimated)

Number of expected viewers: More than 1 billion worldwide

Golden Memories

Gil Cates has produced more Academy Awards broadcasts than anyone else. Here are a few of his most memorable moments:

  • Technical glitches bedeviled Mr. Cates’ first Oscar telecast in 1990. The program was to include a series of live cut-ins from venues around the world, marking the recent fall of the Berlin Wall. On one involving the late Jack Lemmon at a Moscow hotel, a technician neglected to kill an audio feed, resulting in irritating feedback. “It seemed like it went on for hours, but it was only for about 40 seconds,” Mr. Cates said.

  • The 1992 telecast got off to a rousing start when 73-year-old Jack Palance celebrated winning his first Oscar by dropping to the floor and doing a one-armed pushup. Later, astronauts aboard the orbiting shuttle Atlantis saluted producer/director George Lucas, recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Award for Lifetime Achievement, with a statuette. “You could see the Oscar floating weightlessly across the screen,” Mr. Cates said. “It was a surreal moment.”

  • For Oscar’s 70th anni-versary in 1998, Mr. Cates brought back 70 past winners, including Luise Rainer, a two-time best actress winner in the 1930s. Described by Mr. Cates as “an extraordinary event,” the salute prompted a 16-minute standing ovation from the audience.