Green Carpet

In a sense, the last three years of Christian Bale’s career have run in lockstep with the fortunes of the TV advertising market. After having put together an eclectic body of work, the actor was reduced to serving as a memetic punch line when a recording of his expletive-choked, on-set rant became the toast of the Web. But Bale turned it around in 2010, crafting his greatest performance as a washed-up boxer in David O. Russell’s The Fighter—a role that earned him an Oscar nomination.  

So it’s gone with the ad sales racket. While the recession knocked the networks off their feet, they’re back on the ropes and punching above their weight. For both the actor and the TV industry, this year’s gala could be a portent for flush times ahead.

After a two-year downturn, the demand for time in the Oscars broadcast is such that ABC is pricing deals at rates comparable to the high-water mark of 2008. The average price per 30-second spot in the 80th Academy Awards telecast was around $1.8 million, making it the most expensive buy in the history of the event. (Clients didn’t enjoy the reach to which they’ve become accustomed; with an average draw of 31.8 million viewers, the 2008 ceremony was the least watched Oscars ever.)

This year, sponsors are investing as much as $1.75 million per 30-seconds, a price that has swelled as a result of an ad market that continues to be stubbornly robust. In the wake of a Super Bowl that saw Fox take in some $300 million in in-game ad revenue alone, the fact that ABC could generate as much as $85 million with its Feb. 27 Oscars broadcast suggests that this spring’s upfront will be a doozy.

“Certainly the fact that clients aren’t hesitating to invest these big sums is a sign that their confidence is back,” said one national TV buyer. “But the first thing I’d look at is scatter.”

Broadcast pricing in the first quarter is up as much as 35 percent over the 2010-11 upfront rates, which presages another lucrative spring sell-off.
“A lot of ABC’s Oscars deals are tied to bigger packages they hash out during the upfronts, so in a way you’re still seeing the strength of last year’s market when you look at their Oscars load,” one buyer said, before noting that at least one category is a more reliable indicator of the current market. “Sometimes all the studio dollars don’t land until the weeks leading up to the show because they’re usually scrambling to figure out which titles they want to promote.”

Analysts say TV will continue to soar through 2011, as inflated scatter pricing will prime the pump for an even stronger upfront. Last year’s lightning-fast bazaar saw the broadcast nets book $8.3 billion in early commitments while ad-supported cable raked in $7.9 billion and syndication piled on another $2.4 billion.

“We expect another strong upfront will be on the books,” Deutsche Bank media analyst Doug Mitchelson wrote in a note to investors, citing his firm’s survey of top media buyers. “Within national advertising, cable networks are expected to take the most share behind only digital, driven in part by continued strength in auto.”

Hyundai, the exclusive auto sponsor of the last two Oscars broadcasts, is back in gear, and the usual retinue of cosmetics brands, credit card companies and a soft drink giant will be on hand to reach the 40 million film fans watching at home.

Then again, given the preponderance of art-house fare among the Best Picture noms, perhaps the turnout may be a bit more understated. In recent years, audience response has been muted when a blockbuster isn’t represented on the dais, and oddsmakers are giving the The King’s Speech the nod over Aaron Sorkin’s asshole agonistes fable, The Social Network.