Oscar waits for no man.
That seems to be the consensus of Academy insiders who are confronting the prospect of a war in Iraq. The White House is hinting that hostilities will likely break out just prior to the Academy Awards, scheduled for March 23.
Though the Oscars have in fact been postponed three times before, a cancellation or significant delay is thought to be unlikely this year. At the most, insiders say, the ceremony could be delayed for two days in the case of war. A greater delay, it is thought, would wreak havoc with talent as well as network commitments worldwide.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences won’t discuss the possibility of a postponement on the record; a spokesman said speculation is useless because there are simply too many variables to consider. But one insider confirms that they are mulling the possibilities.
If there were a postponement, the ideal scenario would be to reschedule within 48 hours. All the nominees could stay in town and there would be minimal readjustments in such areas as studio parties, limousine rentals, etc.
A longer postponement would create bigger headaches. Aside from the effort and expense of rescheduling events, presenters and nominees from out of town would have to return to L.A., potentially playing havoc with production schedules for those who are working. One exec said his studio would try to accommodate whatever stars and other VIPs want, but pointed out that many might not want to fly at all in the event of war.
Of course, the Oscarcast is not just a celebrity get-together. It’s a television event with a global audience estimated at 1 billion. It’s typically the year’s second highest-rated program, after the Super Bowl. The Academy turns a profit of around $30 million in a typical year and ABC’s net is about the same.
For 2003, ABC is selling 30-second spots for $1.3 million-$1.4 million, and most spots are already sold. The spots are sold based on a ratings guarantee, and the effects of war on an Oscarcast are unpredictable, say advertisers.
John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun Esty, says one of the things on advertisers’ minds is that during a war, “The mass audience may be in search of escapism, so the ratings of the telecast may surge.” If the rating ends up higher than ABC’s audience guarantee, the added viewers are pure gravy to advertisers.
But any major news development — from an escalation in fighting to an Iraqi surrender — could cause viewers to flip over to news, handing Oscar a ratings hit and leaving ABC on the hook for make-goods.
One worst-case scenario is a major story breaking just before the Oscarcast or during the ceremony. According to ABC insiders, the network would have to take a wait and see approach should events unfold on Oscar day. If it appeared that morning that events were of such a magnitude that it would require wall-to-wall 24 hour coverage, then perhaps the Academy Awards would be postponed.
That decision is more difficult than ever before, since the networks now have the ability to go live with news from almost anywhere, almost anytime, often without knowing at the outset how important a story will turn out to be. That means that news toppers must decide, while events are still unfolding, whether a story is important enough to pre-empt regular programming.
“A lot has to do with novelty,” Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz told Daily Variety. “A war that has just broken out gets a huge amount of media attention. A war that has been dragging on for a couple of months becomes more of a back-burner story. So as with so many other things in life, timing is everything.”
Should the Oscars start and news warranted a break-in, festitivites could perhaps be paused, depending on the developments. A 20-minute special report, for example, would be slightly disruptive, but wouldn’t end the evening. That’s what makes putting contingency plans on paper so difficult, the insider said. After all, there’s no real way to predict what might or might not happen.
According to ABC, the decision to break into the Oscars would be made solely by the president of the news division, based on the nature of the story and its importance to the American people.
The real nightmare for ABC would be major news that required the net to run news for the rest of the night, causing the web to forfeit the revenue from one of the year’s most lucrative ad nights. Yet ABC says it’s committed to make any such decision based solely on the importance of any breaking news.
“As is always the case,” an ABC spokesman said, “if there are world events that warrant coverage on the night of the Academy Awards, ABC News will bring them to the American audience with the full support of the academy.”
A postponement would make matters more complicated. Ad buyers will have to choose whether to keep their slots, and if so, what to run in them. Rash expects that “most advertisers will stay in the telecast” if the show is postponed: “Advertisers’ messages in the Academy Awards tend not to be time-sensitive. The spots are more in the nature of brand building.”
Andy Donchin, senior VP and media buyer for Carat N.A., said, “ABC will take the temperature of advertisers” in the event of a postponement. “But advertisers who pay the $1.4 million for a 30-second spot want to be in the Academy Awards.” These advertisers, he said, “often create specific elements built around the awards show, including product launches” geared to reach the widest audience possible day and date.
But there is also a question of propriety.
Bob Flood, senior VP and director of national TV for Optimedia Intl., said that in the middle of a war, “if the tone of the advertiser’s message is not consistent with the tone of the culture and society,” the advertiser would probably try to negotiate its way out of going forward with a 30-second spot in the awards.
Campbell Mithun Esty exec Rash also raises the questions of the kudocast content, such as a patriotic theme or acceptance speeches that address the war.
The show goes on
One reason the Oscars have proceeded in wartime is that America wants them to. Wartime presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt have asked that Americans go on living normal lives. It’s a lesson that Bryce Zabel, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, has taken to heart.
The Emmys, scheduled for five days after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, were moved to Oct. 7 — then moved yet again when the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan began that day.
According to Zabel, “What we learned from the Emmy postponement is that these beloved American cultural touchstones, like the Emmys and the Oscars, can be postponed to fit in with the events of the day, but ultimately the show should go on. That there is merit in that old saying, and we believe in it.”
The Oscar ceremony continued during past conflicts, of course. Kudos were mostly unaffected by the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and even during World War II, albeit more subdued and less glamorous than in other years.
But that was then, observes Howard Kurtz. “The difference between now and World War II is that just as the awards for best actor and best picture are being handed out, the viewer can flip to 15 other channels and watch live action war in Iraq. That’s a tough environment for any awards program.”
Zabel recalls that ATAS had no contingency plan for a catastrophe the scope of Sept. 11, and had to develop one on the fly.
“I guess what we learned is that there is no rulebook on these things,” Zabel said. “A contingency plan means ‘if this happens, then we do that’ — and that is very hard to do. You have to go with your gut. You have to survey the community with the time that you have and find out in many respects what they want to do about it.
“I guess what we did intuitively in 2001 is about what you would do if you had a crisis plan: Get your highest level leadership together to find out what their first thoughts are. Then, draw in the voices from each respective organization and share that information and continue until a consensus emerges, mindful of the time frame you have.”
To Zabel’s surprise, no other organizations, including AMPAS, have contacted the TV Acad to discuss their experiences with the postponement. “I’m surprised. Because if the situation were reversed, I’d be on the phone asking ‘What did you learn?’ “
In fact, the stars may literally be lining up for the Oscars to go on as scheduled. In the 1991 Gulf War, planners timed the Jan. 16 start of Operation Desert Storm to take advantage of the darkness of the new moon. This year’s next new moon is March 2, three full weeks before the kudocast. That’s plenty of time for auds to turn their attention away from the Iraq theater to the Kodak Theater.