Stage Fright Hits Oscars

On the red carpet, austerity is generally about as well received as a surprise cameo appearance by Robert Blake, and yet a grim economic outlook could cause the mood at this year’s Academy Awards to be as subdued as the 2002 ceremony.

With just a week to go before ABC hosts its 34th straight Oscars telecast, the network is scrambling to find replacement sponsors, as one of the program’s greatest endemic categories has all but abdicated. Sources last week said that L’Oréal Paris will sit out the Feb. 22 spectacle, effectively leaving ABC without a beauty brand.

Besides losing a backer with deep pockets—since 2004, L’Oréal’s Academy Awards spend has added up to a cool $40.9 million, per TNS Media Intelligence—ABC is heading into the week with a significant chunk of unsold inventory. While the network would not comment on how many avails it had on its hands, as of Feb. 13, media buyers estimated that ABC still needed to move 6-8 spots, or about 12 percent of the time that would constitute a sellout.

Last year, L’Oréal bought 180 seconds of air time, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, the second-largest investment behind General Motors (210 seconds). At an average cost of $1.7 million, the two clients combined to invest $22.1 million in last year’s Oscars. (After a decade of sponsorship, a span in which the automaker spent around $104.9 million, GM in October announced it was backing out of this year’s show.) Neither ABC nor L’Oréal would comment on the matter.

Thus far, it would appear that a replacement for the L’Oréal business has yet to be nailed down, although some buyers believe that the show may have aged beyond the reach of the category. “A lot of cosmetics companies reach out to younger women, and those viewers are leaving in droves,” said Shari Anne Brill, senior vp, director, Carat.

Meanwhile, ABC was able to sign Hyundai as a stand-in for GM, locking in the Korean automaker for seven spots, including one 60-second ad. Earlier this month, Hyundai purchased time on its second consecutive Super Bowl broadcast, running a pair of 30-second spots for its 2010 Genesis coupe and a third ad to promote its “Hyundai Assurance” plan, an incentive program that allows the consumer to return his new car to the dealer in the event that he loses his job.

Audi will also steer its way into Oscar households next week, although the German car manufacturer is limiting itself to a local buy. Viewers in 18 leading DMAs (including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Phoenix, Miami and Minneapolis) will see two Audi spots (a :30 and a :60) introducing the new compact crossover Q5. Audi will also appear in the pre-show Barbara Walters Special, as well as during ABC’s red-carpet coverage. Last year, Audi made a far less expansive buy, doling out for pick-up in just three markets.

As ABC works to get the last of the Oscars spots off its plate, the net has reworked its rate card, cutting around 18 percent off its original ask with a new base rate of $1.4 million. In addition to a moribund ad market, ABC has had to contend with the issue of last year’s historically low ratings. Per Nielsen, some 32 million viewers tuned in for the 80th Academy Awards, down from 39.9 million in 2007.

“Besides the ratings issue, the fact is that advertisers are really taking a long look at how they’re investing their marketing dollars, and discount or no, this is still a lot of money,” said Jon Swallen, senior vp, research, TNS Media Intelligence. “Even a reduced price tag is still a barrier to entry.”