ABC Usually Builds Its Oscars Campaign Around the Host. Here’s What It’s Doing This Year

Network ‘skipped’ part of its usual Academy Awards promotion

With no Oscar host, ABC had to take a different marketing approach this year. ABC
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The lack of an Oscars host this year, for the first time in three decades, hasn’t weakened advertiser demand for Sunday’s telecast: ABC said yesterday it had sold out of its Academy Awards ad inventory, with 30-second spots going for as much as $2.6 million.

But the emcee-less ceremony threw a wrench into ABC’s marketing campaign for this year’s Oscars, which is usually host-centric, at least in its early stages.

That wasn’t an option for ABC this year. After a growing controversy over old homophobic tweets that resurfaced, Kevin Hart stepped down as Oscars host in December, just two days after he got the job. ABC and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences decided not to hire a replacement, meaning the Oscars would not have a host for the first time since 1989.

The decision left ABC’s marketing team without an early hook for its Oscars promotional plans.

“Often, we will start out by marketing the host early on in the campaign, but we always pivot into talking about what you’re going to see on the show,” said Rebecca Daugherty, evp of marketing for ABC. “So we skipped the host promotion.”

Luckily, ABC and the Academy had another marketing option up its sleeve this year: the “Why I Watch” campaign. “We worked with the Academy on this concept, ‘Why I Watch,’” said Daugherty. “They had done a bunch of celebrity interviews, with some really well-known people, talking about why they watch the Oscars. So we had that great content early on that we used in some of the earlier promotion.”

Here’s one of the “Why I Watch” promos that ran on the network, interspersing memorable Academy Awards moments with interviews from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Amy Adams and Barry Jenkins, talking about why they watch the Oscars:

Even if the Oscars had a host, “we would have pivoted away at this point” from featuring them front-and-center in Oscar promotion, said Daugherty. “They have a lot of big events planned in the show, so we’ve gone into ‘Here’s all the amazing events you can see on the Oscars,’” she explained.

That includes a performance from Queen and Adam Lambert, which will open Sunday’s telecast and was the focus of one of ABC’s most recent Oscar promos. Notably, the promo didn’t center around which stars would be attending or who might win, which is typical at this point in the campaign. Instead, it revolved solely around the performance, using clips from Bohemian Rhapsody (which has five nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for star Rami Malek).

ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke told Adweek that she was initially “nervous” that the lack of a host could dent the audience for Sunday’s Oscars. “And so far, I’ve been gratified that our research is showing all the awareness and intent to view is just as high as if we’d had a host. So that has given me a big sigh of relief,” she said. “I think ironically the fact that there has been mystery around it has helped the Oscars stay part of the conversation.”

The Queen/Bohemian Rhapsody promo was part of ABC’s effort to capitalize on the large box office grosses of several Best Picture nominees.

“The big attraction at the Oscars this year is that we have three movies that are nominated for Best Picture that grossed over $200 million,” Burke said, referring to Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born.

ABC hopes that even without an Oscars host, its marketing efforts will stop the Academy Award ratings from falling further. Last year’s Oscars audience fell 20 percent to its lowest ratings ever. Just 26.5 million people watched the ceremony, making it the lowest-rated Academy Awards telecast in total viewers since 1974, which is as far back as Nielsen has telecast data.

The telecast had a 6.8 rating among adults 18-49, a 25 percent drop from last year’s 9.1 demo rating, which was the smallest 18-49 Oscars audience on record at the time.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.