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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Oscar's ad woes: Is erectile dysfunction next?

February 18, 2009 |  2:21 pm

When you work at a newspaper that's about to have another round of layoffs, you know all too well how bleak the advertising market is today -- one of the few ads we had in our Tuesday sports section was a "stimulus offer" from the Ultimate Performance Medical Center, which specializes in erectile-dysfunction-type issues. But how bleak is the advertising picture for networks running awards shows like the Oscars?

Culvers2_2So bleak that ABC just scored a new Oscar advertiser: Culver Restaurants, a regional hamburger chain that will run its first national TV spot during the Academy Awards, a 60-second spot touting its "unbelievable" customer service. As MediaWeek describes it in a post today, the spot features "a fairly psychotic-looking cynic, "Dave," who can't believe how polite the Culver's waitress is in one of the chain's commercials. He shakes his head at this "outbreak of neatness."

This comes on the heels of another story, also from MediaWeek, reporting that, with less than a week to go before the Academy Awards telecast, ABC is scrambling to find replacement sponsors for the cosmetics firms that customarily advertise on the show. MediaWeek said that L'Oreal Paris, which had spent nearly $41 million in Oscar advertising since 2004, has entirely dropped out of the telecast. It's a big loss because, last year, L'Oreal had bought 180 seconds of airtime, second only to the 210 seconds purchased by General Motors, which has also backed out of this year's show.

While the ad slippage is clearly sparked by the country's economic woes, many advertisers are abandoning the Oscars because of its steady ratings decline. As the ratings slide, so do the ad buys. According to current estimates, ABC could have a 15% drop from last year's estimated $81.1-million ad take. MediaWeek quotes Brad Adgate, an aptly named research executive at Horizon Media who was bearish on all awards shows. As he bluntly assesses the problem: "The shows are too long, and too much time is spent on the less prestigious categories." He added that the Oscars now have a median viewer age of 49.5 years, which puts it outside the target 18-49 audience most advertisers seek.

Awards show supporters contend that the Oscars remain a huge draw for female viewers. But as Adgate points out: "Everybody always calls the Oscars 'the Super Bowl for Women,' but the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl for women. More women watched this year's game than all the people who watched last year's Oscars, male or female. If you're looking for a female audience, maybe you need to start looking at [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady instead of Tom Cruise."

Ouch! The media-buying community's bleak outlook only reinforces my sense that this is a make-or-break Oscar telecast. Producers Larry Mark and Bill Condon have promised wholesale changes, fun surprises and an emphasis on popular films that aren't necessarily up for actual awards. I hope they pull off a major reinvention of the show Sunday night because, if they don't, next year we could all be watching ads for Roger Dunn Golf Shops and Dr. Ziering's Art of Hair Restoration, just to mention two of my paper's most valued advertisers.

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