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TV goes with Plan B for Oscars

ABC postpones Barbara Walters' annual special. KABC-TV cancels its awards coverage.

March 20, 2003|Brian Lowry and Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writers

Scaling back on the Oscar ceremony's red carpet hoopla has sent a ripple through the cottage industry of programming planned around the awards, with ABC announcing Wednesday that it is postponing its annual Barbara Walters interview special and KABC-TV Channel 7 canceling its pre- and post-show coverage -- "An Evening at the Academy Awards."

Others, such as E! Entertainment Television and KTLA-TV Channel 5, intend to proceed with their programs but will alter the tone.

Both ABC and its locally owned station will suffer a financial loss from their decisions, which executives attribute to a question of propriety at a time of war, but they declined to disclose what it will cost them.

The Walters special -- this year featuring interviews with best actress nominees Julianne Moore and Renee Zellweger, as well as best actor nominee Nicolas Cage -- has been broadcast on Oscar night for 22 years. "With such serious issues facing the nation, it is the right decision to postpone the special," Walters said in a statement.

KABC, which has traditionally aired two hours of coverage both before and after the Oscars, has yet to determine how to fill that void. Indeed, although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has stated its intention to proceed with the ceremony as scheduled on Sunday, the uncertainty of events has left even the status of the awards open to question.

The station could still broadcast a truncated program, but it said it will almost certainly look different from what viewers are accustomed to seeing. In addition to the Los Angeles area, KABC's coverage -- showcasing the glamour of the stars' arrivals, with film critic Roger Ebert as co-host -- was also to be syndicated to 40 U.S. cities and 22 countries.

"The overriding factor is that there is no red carpet," said KABC General Manager Arnold Kleiner, adding that stars were not comfortable providing access to the media, and "above all, we need to be respectful of that."

The academy announced Tuesday that it will eliminate this year's red carpet festivities, citing concerns among many attendees about how such a celebration would look in light of world events. In addition to television, that decision has repercussions for other industries, such as publishing and fashion, which build glitzy events around the Academy Awards.

Other TV outlets are taking a measured approach in presenting their Oscar coverage. E! Entertainment -- which features a daylong marathon of coverage leading up to the ceremony, including a red carpet arrivals show hosted by Joan and Melissa Rivers -- is not cutting back on its pre-Oscar programming, but the tone will change.

"Our coverage will still begin at 9 a.m., and we will be leading into Joan and Melissa just like before," said Mark Sonnenberg, executive vice president of entertainment for the cable network. "But our coverage will be much more about the awards than about what people are wearing, and what the parties are like. The tone will be much more somber. This is the 75th anniversary of the Oscars, so we will have pre-produced packages reflecting that."

Added Gary Snegaroff, the cable network's vice president of original programming: "We haven't had our head in the sand about this. We have known for a while that this was a possibility. That's why we're putting more emphasis on the show itself during the day."

The final two hours leading up to the Oscars will be anchored by the two Riverses, along with other E! personalities. That show will include pre-produced segments and some interviews with arriving stars. At this point, it is uncertain where that show will be located, but possibilities include the Roosevelt Hotel across the street from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

As for Joan Rivers, known to be alternately critical and fawning with arriving celebrities, Sonnenberg said, "Joan is very aware of what's going on in the world, and she is aware of what's appropriate. She doesn't need to be told how to behave."

Representatives for KTLA also said they will proceed with their two-hour pre-show hosted by Sam Rubin and Mindy Burbano, but they have not yet determined what the structure will be, awaiting more specifics from the academy. (The station is owned by the Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times.)

Even with national ratings diminishing in recent years, the Oscars remain one of TV's most-watched annual events, with the show often billed in marketing circles as "the Super Bowl for women," who view it in disproportionate numbers. ABC is charging advertisers more than $1.3 million for each commercial spot and would have probably pocketed less than half that for Walters' program. Last year, the Walters hour averaged 17 million viewers, compared with 42 million watching the ceremony at any given moment.

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