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DEALING FOR DISNEY

ABC, Academy See a Ratings Rebound

March 02, 2004|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

ABC and the people who hand out the Oscars are breathing sighs of relief: The Ringers showed up.

Sunday's telecast of the 76th annual Academy Awards, dominated by the 11-Oscar sweep by "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," enjoyed a sharp rebound from the record-low ratings for last year's ceremony, which came during the early days of the Iraq war.

The ratings -- no doubt helped by "Ringers," as fans of the "Rings" film trilogy describe themselves -- offered some solace to struggling ABC, owned by Walt Disney Co., and relief to first-time Oscar producer Joe Roth.

ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had taken a gamble by shortening the Oscar campaign season and moving the ceremony to its earliest date since 1942. The idea was to give ABC a much-needed ratings boost by placing the program for the first time in the February sweeps period, while also helping the academy avoid awards show fatigue and some of the negative campaigning that a longer awards season can bring.

The gambit appears to have succeeded, though not spectacularly.

An average of 43.5 million viewers tuned in Sunday, the biggest audience since 2000 and a gain of 32% over last year's telecast, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. Nielsen estimates that at least 73.4 million viewers saw some part of the show, which ran slightly over its scheduled 3 1/2 hours. It ended at 9:17 p.m. PST.

In 2002, an average audience of just under 42 million people watched the Oscars, when "A Beautiful Mind" won best picture.

Traditionally, blockbuster movies in best picture contention correspond with better-rated Oscar broadcasts, and "Return of the King" already has passed the $1-billion mark worldwide.

Even with that presumed fan effect, Sunday's ratings were far below the Oscar telecast's all-time record in 1998, when 55.3 million viewers saw "Titanic" win best picture.

Although Oscar's reach will probably help ABC avoid an embarrassing last-place finish in total viewers for the February sweeps period, the network is projected to rank a distant fourth among the young adults favored by advertisers, further underscoring ABC's serious problems in prime time.

Nonetheless, ABC pronounced itself pleased with the results.

"I'm in a great mood," Andrea Wong, ABC's senior vice president of alternative series and specials, said Monday. "It exceeded our expectations."

Academy officials had worried that the effect of their show was being diluted in part because of increased competition from cable as well as a proliferation of awards shows, including the recently televised Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

The Oscars are a signature event for ABC, which has been the ceremony's sole broadcaster since 1976. The network's deal with the academy expires in 2008.

The awards show is typically TV's second-highest-rated event, with a total audience that ranks behind only that of the Super Bowl.

Academy President Frank Pierson said Monday that he believed moving up the ceremony kept nominated pictures fresher in viewers' minds.

"The way it has been the last two or three years before this one is that you get to the end of the whole [awards season] and there is kind of an exhaustion factor that creeps in," Pierson said.

While noting that academy officials had not had a chance to compare notes with ABC executives, he added: "On the whole, we are very happy with the show.... It's an incredibly difficult show to produce."

Pierson also appeared to approve of producer Roth's decision to focus on A-list presenters such as Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks as well as emerging stars such as Jack Black and Will Ferrell.

"I think we had more stars, in terms of both younger- and older-audience stars, than we ever had on the show," he said. "That is something people tune in for."

A spokeswoman for Roth said he was unavailable to comment.

Next year's Oscars also will be held in February, as part of the academy's plan announced in the summer of 2002. Academy insiders suggested Monday that given the ratings rebound Sunday, and the ongoing desire to shorten the often-costly and unseemly Oscar campaign season, it was likely the February Oscar date would remain for the time being.

Though the strong ratings gave ABC ample opportunity to plug upcoming programs such as the midseason series "Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital," the network is unlikely to see much long-term financial benefit from the awards broadcast.

The Oscar results "certainly had to help ABC in terms of more general [public relations]," said New York-based media analyst Jack Myers. "But advertisers tend to exclude the big events like the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl from their evaluations" of a network's overall strength.

Big advertisers purchase most ad time on national networks in advance, and they are generally concerned about the performance of regularly scheduled series rather than one-time events, which tend to be sold on an a la carte basis.

On the other hand, Myers sees Oscar's ratings recovery as a general plus.

"Anytime anything is up in this age of constant erosion," he said, "it's good news."

Disney's shares rose 34 cents to $26.87 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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Times staff writer Robert W. Welkos contributed to this report.

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