ABC’s Oscar Contract Renegotiations: Who’ll Get Creative Control?

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Negotiations for ABC to extend its license agreement for the annual Oscar telecast are underway, but there’s a sticking point: ABC wants more creative input.

ABC’s deal with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences already runs through 2020, but the two sides have been in talks for some time about an extension. A long-term deal would provide stability for the Academy as it looks to take on debt to help finance its ambitious Hollywood museum project, set to open in 2018.

Given the ratings issues with recent Oscarcasts, ABC has a much stronger argument to make at the bargaining table. Sunday’s 88th annual Academy Awards brought in the lowest ratings in eight years, a disappointment for Hollywood’s glitziest awards gala.

Under the terms of the contract, the Academy retains the rights to produce the show. That means AMPAS officials pick the producers, the host and set the tone for the overall production.

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The network has always wanted more power, and now declining ratings strengthens its demand for a seat at the table when it comes to the show itself. The push is seen as coming from Ben Sherwood and the top ranks of ABC. (The Academy and ABC declined comment on ongoing negotiations.)

On Sunday, host Chris Rock drew generally positive reviews for attacking the Oscars’ diversity crisis with biting jokes. But the overall production of the show was seen as lackluster, given the industry it celebrates. With the diversity issue adding to the pressure, AMPAS is likely to be in a mood to cut a deal.

“To be a good partner I think you have to make some concessions when you realize you’re not capable of producing a show anymore,” says a source. “They watch what happens with Dick Clark Productions, who produce the Golden Globes, and it’s a pretty slick show.”

The overnights had barely come in before the finger-pointing began. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy blindsided the Academy and left the producers scrambling, and under pressure of boycotts, Chris Rock did little to promote the show. “We were behind the eight ball in this controversy,” says a network insider. “And America didn’t care.”

While viewers tuned out, those who did watch complained that the show itself didn’t feel well-produced. Though Rock’s monologue was well-received (as was his extended bit involving his young daughters selling Girl Scout cookies), the show was lacking in high-gloss production elements. “I thought Chris Rock opened strongly but then he kept going back to the same theme. It wore out its welcome,” acknowledged one Academy member.

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Multiple sources questioned the choice of David Hill, a veteran of sports and live events, and director-producer Reginald Hudlin as producers of this year’s show. The Academy has long wrestled with whether to hand the telecast to film producers or to those with TV experience. For the previous three Oscarcasts the Academy went with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who have a broad mix of film, TV and legit productions on their resumes.

In an interview with Variety, Hill and Hudlin defended the show, pointing to the increase in male viewership (it was up 20%), and a slight uptick in the 18-34 demo. “We wanted to youth-ify the audience and broaden the demos, so that was very satisfying,” said Hudlin. They said they got a positive response from ABC and several Academy governors, who were “stoked.”

All this Monday-morning quarterbacking only strengthens ABC’s negotiating stance. But should it get too contentious, the Academy does have other options. CBS, for example, would likely take over the show in a heartbeat. Says a source, “The Academy can just turn to Les Moonves and say, ‘Will you give us more freedom?’ And he’ll say ‘yes’ and give them more money. But the truth is if you’re going to move (to another network) you better get something out of it other than a change in an acrimonious relationship.”

Ratings aside, the Oscars nevertheless are bankable as a prestige play for premium advertisers. ABC brought in an estimated $110 million in revenue from Oscar ads with last year’s telecast — and presumably a similar haul this year.

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  1. 85wzen says:

    AHHH FUCK ABC… CBS, NBC… ABC HAS THAT OLD HISTORY!

  2. More of Bruce Vilanch writing for the host which would be hilarious given his track record, and less of the host writing it, which would just be self-serving and narrow focus. Look at the Billy Crystal years!

  3. Dunstan says:

    “High gloss production elements?” The AA show isn’t a Broadway musical and never will be; it’s a show where people sit in theater seats and other people give speeches. This does not make for great TV.

    What’s interesting is that the AA started out (before television of course) as a dinner event held at a hotel. People could wander around, have drinks and food and it lent itself to more fun. Yes, the Golden Globes appropriated that format and guess what? It’s more fun to watch and has more of a party atmosphere.

    One of the ideas that AMPAS should try is returning to that format; get out of the deal with the Dolby Theater and return to its roots as an actual party.

    Stick to inviting nominees and have only film stars give out awards; no TV stars need apply. If ABC thinks having Priyanka Chopra or Sofia Vergara as presenters is somehow going to help their primetime programming, they’re sadly mistaken.

  4. Bill says:

    I thought it was a decent production, but I agree that after a strong opening, Rock went on too long about the same topic & slowly wore out his welcome. I also don’t think this was a typical ratings year. There have been a lot of complaints for a few years about how the Oscars are not in touch with the public, but that was not the case this year with Mad Max, The Martian & The Revenant. I think less people watched due to all of the negative publicity about race and quite a few were not interested in hearing or viewing the ultimate platform for even more on this issue. Some don’t want to watch things like this to be preached at, though I am curious if more minorities watched this telecast than the norm since they were the focal point of so much of this year’s Oscar talk.

  5. In the years before People Mag and social media, people flocked to the tv to watch the Oscars because they rarely saw photos or videos of the stars. Now, you can follow them almost daily. There’s not the press to watch the Oscars live anymore. You can catch the winners, the gowns, the highlights the next day and for a month afterwards.

  6. ... says:

    Ben Sherwood is an obnoxious busybody who’s going to run ABC into the ground.

  7. TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    ABC has a point. Next year this show has to save politics for the green room. Rock wasn’t inclusive enough in the plea for diversity. There are other marginalized minorities in Hollywood who suffer worse than the PC victims. But since this is the PC network, they will have to live with the media storm that the snub created.

    • Dex says:

      “There are other marginalized minorities in Hollywood who suffer worse than the PC victims.”

      Ah, the hackneyed “bu–but–but others suffer worse than your people” defense. Except it doesn’t fly here since nearly every prominent group–including Asians–had nominees this year. The absence of Blacks in all 24 categories was glaring and thus the reason they felt slighted. Blacks certainly don’t need you or any other myopic whites undermining what they perceived as bias.

      • TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

        Your non inclusive defense of the victim status quo is a PC fail. Awards competition diversity has nothing to do with the ratio of opportunity representation, quality of work or the biased demographics of the Academy. Other ignored marginalized groups are usually recognized for consistently negative image portrayals or they have to wait longer to win.

  8. Jacques Strappe says:

    How much control does CBS wield over Grammy Awards show? It was a bigger snooze fest than the Oscars and the awards part seemed like an afterthought.. Wasn’t every presenter from a CBS show, including the host, LL Cool J? All the big award shows were down this season as viewers become less enthusiastic.

    • Ken says:

      Yes, but CBS also hosts the annual Tony Awards, which is typically a splashy, entertaining affair, full of songs, dance, jokes, banter, production numbers etc., not to mention the annual Kennedy Center Honors, which is a class showcase. AMPAS might do well to consider shifting networks..

  9. Sam says:

    The academy does not need to give creative control to ABC– they need to seriously consider moving the ceremony to March so that academy members aren’t forced to nominate and attend screenings during the holidays and also get it out of black history month. It should be notated that other AARP shows are down this year too

    • Imani Hill says:

      I think should be a better plan. But I think it should give the voters extra time to see all the films, and give them time to cast their votes to avoid any more snubs.

  10. cadavra says:

    Apparently ABC wants more of its series stars as presenters? Because I don’t think Sofia Vergara was there because of her socko-boff hit HOT PURSUIT.

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