ABC, Acad banking on digital makeover to boost viewer engagement

If all goes well for ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences on Sunday, the must-have accessory coming out of this year’s Academy Awards won’t be a Cartier bauble or a Chanel clutch but rather Oscar’s official app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.

ABC and the Acad are banking on a digital makeover to boost viewer engagement before, during and after the live telecast.

ABC and AMPAS stepped up their game for the 2011 telecast with the launch of an iPad app and a host of features on Oscar.com. But last year they went the subscription route, charging 99ยข for the app and $4.99 for access to all of Oscar.com’s red carpet and backstage coverage.

This year, the offerings marketed as the Oscar Digital Experience are free to all comers, and there will be exponentially more content and much deeper integration with Facebook, Twitter et al. The site and the app are advertising-supported, but it’s clear that the effort is as much an investment in the event’s future as it is a revenue-driver for 2012.

“We’ve been looking at research all year. People really are watching TV with a device in their lap now,” said Karin Gilford, ABC’s senior vice president of digital media. “What really completes the experience is having something providing relevant content that is (enhancing) what they’re seeing on TV.”

The app gives official Oscardom the chance to crash the social-media tailgate party that inevitably crops up around big television events. The goal is to make it easy for the online obsessors to connect with one another, post authorized clips and get perks that won’t be seen by those who watch the show the old-fashioned way.

ABC will have an army of digital producers and directors coordinating the feeds from 20 cameras on the red carpet and dozens more in the backstage area, as well as at the Governors Ball.

Ipad users will be able to pick and choose their own camera feeds, from a video grid that shows what’s on each camera as well as a ticker feed narrating all the action. There’s an “Oscar My Picks” feature allowing users to make winner predictions and then track their progress and those of their social-media friends.

Gilford is particularly excited about the use of a new video-organizing technology that will allow them to rapidly meta-tag clips from the many hours of coverage that will stream through Oscar.com on Sunday. Another goal this year is to extend the lifespan of Oscar.com beyond Sunday night, making it a conduit for post-show commentary and analysis.

The need to keep the Academy Awards relevant to a broad audience is something the Acad and ABC have grappled with for years, as the size of the show’s aud has seesawed based on the accessibility of top nominees.

The median age of the kudocast’s viewers hit 50 for the first time in 2010 (50.5 to be exact), and it climbed ever so slightly (to 50.6) in 2011, when the telecast brought in 37.9 million viewers. In 2001, the median age was 44.5, according to a recent report from Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate.

To lure the digitally savvy set, ABC, the Acad and the telecast’s major advertisers (including Hyundai, Diet Coke and JC Penney) have increased their focus on social media, and they’ve made a point to coordinate their messages to the show and its digital extensions.

“Companies can often screw up social media campaigns by viewing them as just another form of advertising. It’s not. It’s about engagement,” says Josh Spector, the Acad’s managing director of digital media and marketing.

Christina Kounelias, the Acad’s chief marketing officer, notes that the “Celebrate the Movies in All of Us” theme of this year’s soiree lends itself to such tubthumping in a world where tens of millions of social media users regularly rave and rant about movies old and new. It’s no coincidence that Facebook is gradually becoming a distribution platform for Hollywood.

“The show and the (social media) campaign is all about tapping into that emotional experience we all have with movies,” Kounelias says. “We want to give people who aren’t in the theater a fun, inclusive experience.”

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