ABC Strikes Gold With the Oscars

Network sells out broadcast, fetching $1.7 million per :30

With just under three weeks to go before the film world descends on Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, ABC has sold the last available inventory in its broadcast of the 84th annual Academy Awards.

Minutes after Walt Disney Co. chief financial officer Jay Rasulo told investors that ABC was “virtually sold out” of its Oscars inventory, the network rushed to confirm that it was in fact completely booked for the Feb. 24 event.

Rasulo said ABC had sold “the vast majority” of its Oscars spots before Christmas. While Disney did not comment on pricing, media buyers said that the average unit cost hovered around the $1.7 million mark, with some spots fetching as much as $1.85 million a pop.

Pricing was consistent with the 2012 Oscars broadcast. Last year, ABC announced it was out-of-sale on Feb. 8.

Along with the Super Bowl and the NFL Playoffs, the Oscars are one of the TV’s last remaining reach vehicles. Last year’s ceremony, hosted by perennial favorite Billy Crystal, fetched 39.3 million viewers, making it the fifth most-watched Oscars broadcast in the last decade.

Marketers are particularly drawn to the three-and-a-half-hour spectacle because of its demographic composition. Per Nielsen, the Oscars audience is 62 percent female; moreover, roughly 45 percent of Academy Award viewers are members of the 18-49 set.

In a bid to draw an even younger cohort of viewers, ABC has tapped Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane to host this year’s lovefest. 

James Cameron’s Titanic helped account for the all-time biggest draw in Oscars broadcast history, as an average 57.3 million viewers tuned in on March 23, 1998, to watch the film win a record-tying 11 gold statuettes.

During Disney’s FY Q1 earnings call, Rasulo said that ABC’s ad revenue in the Oct. 1-Dec. 31 period was “up low single digits” versus the year-ago period. Quarter to date, scatter pricing at the broadcast network is “running low double-digit percentage points above upfront levels,” Rasulo said.

Broadcast revenues increased 6 percent to $1.56 billion while operating income jumped 16 percent to $262 million, thanks in large part to increased ad rates. The impact of higher pricing was somewhat offset by low ratings and fewer units sold. Season to date, ABC is averaging a 2.2 rating in prime time, down 12 percent versus a year ago. The network is currently in fourth place in the dollar demo, trailing CBS (3.2), NBC (2.8) and Fox (2.5).

As has been the case across the broadcast landscape, ABC’s new programming slate has been dicey. The network already has canceled two freshman dramas (Last Resort, 666 Park Avenue) and the most recent installments of the sudsy musical Nashville and the comedy The Neighbors slipped below a 2.0 in the demo.

Up next for ABC are the new thrillers Zero Hour (Feb. 14) and Red Widow (March 3), and the single-camera comedy How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life), which bows April 3. 

Rasulo said ABC expects its programming expenses will be $40 million higher than FY 2012.

Higher programming costs at ESPN—due in large part to the network’s renewed NFL rights deal and its Pac 12 and Big 12 packages—nudged operating income at the cable networks division 2 percent to $952 million. Cable revenue rose 7 percent to $3.54 billion.

ESPN has hashed out carriage deals with nearly all of the major cable operators, but renewals with satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network are yet to be completed. ESPN’s carriage deal with Dish expires before the end of the year.

Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger addressed ESPN’s Monday Night Football franchise, which suffered its lowest-rated season since 2008, averaging 12.8 million viewers and a 5.1 rating in the dollar demo. Iger said that a relatively unbalanced schedule may have been to blame for the 3 percent drop in MNF deliveries, before adding that the network is always working with the NFL to secure the best possible roster.

“I do believe though that the ratings can be very match-centric in the sense that when you have games that either are not as competitive…or not as interesting going in, there tends just to be less interest in it,” Iger said. “The NFL…has worked hard on our behalf to maintain a quality schedule. [But] you know, so many things can happen in the season.…Our schedule turned out to be a little bit weaker than we anticipated that it would be, but it’s still a great product for us.”

There is no question that ESPN was snakebit by some tepid matchups, particularly in the second half of the season. MNF in the home stretch featured several sub-.500 teams, including the 3-7 Panthers vs. the 2-8 Eagles (10.8 million viewers, 4.0 in the demo); the 6-7 Jets vs. the 4-9 Titans (10.1 million, 3.6); and the 4-10 Lions taking a 31-18 beating at the hands of the Falcons three nights before Christmas (9.72 million, 3.5).

Naturally, the highest-rated, most-watched installment of MNF featured football’s top draw. On Oct. 1, 16.6 million viewers tuned in to see the Dallas Cowboys host the Bears; Chicago’s 34-18 romp delivered a 6.8 in the 18-49 demo.

ESPN closed out the year with an average prime-time audience of 2.34 million viewers, flat versus 2011. The sports giant finished first in the dollar demo, averaging 1.11 million adults 18-49, up 1 percent from the previous year.

Iger laid a few jabs on the pretenders to the $8 billion ESPN throne, noting that Bristol enjoys “a 33-year head start on the competition.” He added that with sports rights locked in for the foreseeable future and an annual load of 30,000 hours of original programming, ESPN will “remain the must-have brand for sports fans.”

ESPN’s ad sales revenue grew 2 percent in the final quarter of 2012, driven by higher rates and volume. Year to date, the network’s ad sales are pacing up 7 percent.