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Buzz biz hits prime season

Showbiz media outlets bulk up for awards

Hours before sunrise Jan. 25, dozens of satellite trucks will huddle around the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences building on Wilshire Boulevard, waiting to beam the breaking story across the globe.

Staged in time for East Coast morning news shows, the nomination announcements are the first actual news event related to prospective Oscar hopefuls, despite the acres of speculative print that will already have been committed to the topic. And unveiling the noms inspires intense coverage. Last year, more than 300 print and broadcast media outlets requested credentials, and some 450 journalists and producers showed up for the predawn announcement.

With 25 or so films in the running to pick up the industry’s top honors, this year’s Oscar race could make Bush vs. Kerry look like an election for president of the PTA. The competition for media attention is getting fiercer. “We are a news show and that’s a priority, but I had a hard time explaining that to people during the election,” says “Today” show producer Tim Bruno of the pressure from publicists.

More than ever, the Academy Awards is a convenient news angle on which the media can feed a national obsession with celebrity. “The buzz around the Oscars is becoming much more a business than it used to be,” observes Entertainment Weekly senior editor Mark Harris.

As the national press corps churns out reams of copy and miles of videotape on every conceivable Oscar angle, the hype sometimes threatens to overtake the event itself.

Take E! Entertainment Television, which, with the help of Joan and Melissa Rivers, made the “Who are you wearing?” red-carpet interview as much an event as the awards themselves. This year, E! will air no less than eight hours of live Oscar coverage — six hours of countdown, capped with two hours of live red-carpet interviews.

After the awards, E! reporters case the parties looking for Oscar-toting celebs who might give a candid interview. E! staffers typically work from 2 a.m. the day of the Oscar ceremony till 3 a.m. the day after.

The burgeoning build-up can seem rather strange, even to E! topper Ted Harbert, who came to the cabler in July from ABC. “This is just leading up to it,” he says. “At least at ABC we were showing the awards.”

But the red carpet is big business. Harbert says E! spends a fortune covering it with the help of sponsors such as L’Oreal, Kmart and Revlon.

Style mag W is making inroads into the Hollywood scene by hosting its third annual private spa and beauty villa as a complementary perk for L.A.’s elite at a top hotel.

Vanity Fair’s Oscar night party at Morton’s has become one of the town’s hottest tickets – and not incidentally, those tickets help cultivate the Hollywood connections that make for top-selling magazine covers year-round.

For editors of pop culture magazines like Entertainment Weekly, there’s no such thing as too much coverage of the Oscars horse race. “It gives us four months of coverage,” says Harris. “It gives us the chance to shine a light on some really good movies and deserving people.”

Mainstream mags are increasingly involved in the build-up, perhaps because campaigning celebs are generous with interviews. You know something’s changed when Us Weekly does a November blurb on small-budget pic “Sideways” tagged “Oscar Watch.”

The Academy Awards are expected to generate at least three covers of the magazine, says editor Janice Min –the walk-up, the ceremony and the follow on that starlet that emerges or at least one historically bad outfit.

It’s becoming hard to think of any magazine short of Popular Science that doesn’t kick in a Hollywood issue around Oscar time, but it’s reassuring to note that a sense of perspective prevailed at the New Yorker this year. In honor of that Nov. 2 thing, the magazine swapped out its Hollywood special issue for one devoted to politics.

As for advertising geared to reach Academy voters, it’s spreading beyond the trades. Premiere and Entertainment Weekly claim they’ve cracked the For Your Consideration ad market. The studios plan to take out some major double-trucks in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, not because it’s an efficient way to reach voters, but because average readers like to feel as if they, too, are on the inside. “On the ad side, we’re forced to buy in these publications because if you’re excluded it says you’re not competitive or you won’t spend the money,” says one studio exec. “The psychology starts playing into it.”

“Oscar time is one time of year when the movies need the media more than the media need movies,” says Entertainment Weekly’s Harris. That tips the balance of power toward editors in the struggle for celebrity access.

The “Today” show’s Bruno says bookings are going to get tight and scheduling conflicts mean some stars will have to live with a taped segment or no segment at all. “Unfortunately, we have to choose sometimes,” he explains.

Unlike this year’s other media bonanzas, the Olympics and the presidential race, the cycle of Academy Awards coverage will repeat itself much sooner. E! vice president Gary Snegaroff explains that the day after the Oscars, immediately after the fashion police conduct their postmortem on the outfits, thoughts at E! turn to one thing. “Once the Oscars are over you start planning for next year,” he says. “It really is a full-time job.”

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