It's been dubbed the Super Bowl for women, but some ad executives claim that the annual Academy Awards show's dominance as a magnet for female viewers has diminished of late.
Ratings have seen a double-digit decline overall during the past five telecasts, and this year's Oscars presentation—airing Feb. 27 on ABC—isn't likely to make up much of the lost ground, according to executives.
The factors at work: no blockbuster films among the nominees for best picture, coupled with a first-time host, Chris Rock, whose harder-edged brand of comedy isn't likely to play as broadly as the warm and fuzzy (and somewhat more family friendly) Billy Crystal.
Last year's telecast—with Crystal as host and one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, as best picture—was the first Oscars show in six years to show an upward bump in the ratings. But that performance didn't make up for six years of steady erosion. Since 1998, when Titanic took home best picture, the show has dropped 25 percent in the household ratings, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Still, the Oscars remain the second-biggest draw for female viewers each year on TV. Last year's show drew more than 27 million women, about 62 percent of the total Oscar audience. And advertisers still flock to the show: All 48 available in-show units were bought up months ago, at an average price of $1.6 million, up 6 percent from the previous year.
"I think it's fair to say that the show has lost some of its cachet over the last several years," based on the ratings slippage, said Jason Maltby, co-executive director of broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare. "But it's still a marquee event, and it is still the second highest rated show of the year. It's just that the gap [between it and the top-ranked Super Bowl] has widened."
Nielsen's numbers support this statement. In 2000, the Oscars delivered about 70 percent of the women age 18-49 who tuned into the Super Bowl. By last year, that figure had dropped to 58 percent.
But this year's Oscars show does have an advantage over other marquee award shows that have aired this year—since it's airing on ABC, it won't have to compete against the hit Sunday series Desperate Housewives. That program has been the scourge of award shows this year. Case in point: the Grammy Awards, which aired on Sunday, Feb. 13, on CBS. The music awards had its smallest audience since 1995, and Housewives was the first program to beat it in a decade.
In addition, the ratings erosion in the Oscars, albeit significant, hasn't yet scared away the show's three anchor sponsors—General Motors, J.C. Penney and Pepsi—which are back this year with a minimum of three minutes of commercial time each. (Overall, about half of last year's advertisers are back this year.)
And after a six-year absence, ABC has finally found a new cosmetics sponsor—L'Oréal—to replace Revlon, which bailed in 1999 after a multiyear run in the program. Why the delay? Cosmetics and the Oscars, with all its glamour, would seem like a perfect fit.
Kiki Rees, vp of planning and buying at Revlon, said that even though the company hasn't had a single spot in the program in five years, "if you asked people today who the beauty sponsor of the Oscars is, nine out of 10 would probably tell you it's Revlon. We're still getting mileage out of it." That could be a problem for a company coming in and trying to replace Revlon, sources say. Neither L'Oréal nor ABC wanted to talk about that situation.
Rees said Revlon stopped its sponsorship because the company wanted to diversify its program mix, "not wanting to put all of our eggs in one basket." But even this year the company linked to the Oscars in an indirect way: It bought a full-page ad in a recent New York Times special section on the Oscars urging viewers to tune into Desperate Housewives to check out its new TV spots, the same Housewives episode that beat the Grammys.
Oscar advertisers continue to use the program as a vehicle to showcase new creative. J.C. Penney, for example, will use the program to break a whole new ad campaign, noted company spokesman Tim Lyons. "The Oscars is a very important venue for us," he said, adding that 80 percent of the company's sales are made to women. The J.C. Penney effort, titled "For All the Sides of You," will break in Oscar spots highlighting the retailer's spring lineup of apparel and products for the home.
MasterCard and Pepsi are both returning to the Oscars with new spots, as is GM, which once again will showcase its Cadillac brand and possibly one other car brand, a spokeswomen said.
"We love it," said Caryl Hahn, MasterCard's vp of global media and new channels. "It's a great place to reach our target audience, which is people who use their MasterCard a lot. They are more upscale and better educated."
The credit-card company will have three spots in the main show (and another during the "red carpet" segment leading up to the telecast) and will break new creative in its long-running "Priceless" campaign, said Hahn.
CareerBuilder.com, a rookie Super Bowl advertiser with its chimp-filled spots, also is a first-time advertiser in the Oscars with three spots and one during the red carpet lead-in. It's part of a $200 million brand-building campaign that began with the Super Bowl and will continue through the end of the year, said Richard Castellini, the company's vp of consumer marketing.
Anheuser-Busch will introduce four new spots in the program, said Tony Ponturo, the company's vp of global media and sports marketing. "We target the dual audience that's there, and it fits with our strategy to be in the big events because in a cluttered world, those are the shows that stop traffic," he explained.
Big events are part of the GM strategy too, and the Oscars "is a great way to talk to our female customers," said Ryndee Carney, manager of marketing communications for General Motors Corp. It's also a great way to beat TiVo, Carney added, because most people watch it live. GM also does some buzz marketing in Los Angeles with a pre-Oscar-week party that raises money for charity.
Other companies are hooking up with the Oscars producer, the Motion Picture Academy of America, to create promotions to tie into their Oscar sponsorships. J.C. Penney, for instance, is doing a watch-and-win contest that requires picking up a game piece at one of its stores. The Academy produced a 22-minute in-flight program on the Oscars for United Airlines that will be seen on the airline's domestic flights throughout February.