Oscar Advertisers Staying Tuned to Timing, Developments in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Corporate America is bracing for the possible disruption of one of television's biggest advertising nights -- Sunday's Academy Awards telecast on ABC -- as the major networks prepare for commercial-free news coverage if the U.S. invades Iraq.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC on Monday stuck to the script that the Oscars will air as planned. Events will dictate their final decision, which will come later this week. If war does break out, the tone of the Hollywood gala might be made more subdued, and the broadcast might include cut-aways or crawlers to keep viewers informed.

Some advertisers that months ago agreed to spend $1.3 million for a 30-second commercial spot -- and could lose that money if they decide to pull their ads at the last minute -- questioned whether the show could go on if the world is focused on war.

"Timing is everything," said Elisa Romm, vice president of marketing for MasterCard International Inc., which has bought commercial time for the Oscars. "If no one is in the mood to be entertained, then the show cannot go forward."

The Oscars have been postponed only three times: after the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981; after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968; and after floods struck Los Angeles in 1938. The awards show never has been canceled outright.

ABC executives said Monday that they were not being pressured by skittish advertisers to delay the broadcast, and declined to discuss contingency plans. "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," the network said in a statement.

Academy Awards producer Gil Cates also would not comment. Privately, Academy officials said that if combat were to begin before the weekend, Sunday's ceremony probably would not be delayed. But, if an invasion were to begin during the weekend, a postponement would be more likely.

Oscar organizers hope to avoid a repeat of CBS' experiences with the 2001 Emmy Awards, which were bumped twice -- after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and again as the U.S. launched airstrikes in Afghanistan. By the time they aired, the Emmys were a nonevent.

The Academy Awards are traditionally the second-most-watched TV event of the year, behind the Super Bowl. As a result ABC, which has claimed the Oscars since 1976, can command some of the industry's highest ad rates. More than 42 million people tuned in last year.

Earlier this year, the Walt Disney Co. network sold all its commercial time for the event, and ended up turning away dozens of advertisers. The struggling network is depending on the Oscars to bring in at least $78 million in ad revenue, and some of its highest ratings.

Several advertisers planned to roll out new advertising campaigns Sunday.

America Online is scheduled to unveil a new commercial featuring actress Sharon Stone to promote its broadband Internet service. Washington Mutual bought time to launch three new ads that poke fun at the rigors of obtaining a home loan. Now those plans are up in the air.

"Clearly we are in waiting mode like the rest of America to see what happens in the next few days," said Len Short, AOL's executive vice president for brand marketing.

Several advertisers, including American Express, Washington Mutual, Anheuser-Busch and General Motors' Cadillac division, said Monday that they are committed to their Oscar ads if the telecast isn't delayed.

"We are sensitive and watching world events, but we are sticking to our plan to continue with our advertising commitments," said Kelly Cusinato, Cadillac's communications manager. "The advertisements don't have anything controversial in them."

MasterCard's Romm said the company has been working on war contingency plans since November and has targeted all its commercials to reflect the mood of the country. "We've had a lot of advanced warning," she said.

Some of MasterCard's ads feature spending on home improvements because "the home is a source of comfort and it's where the family is," Romm said.

Added American Express spokeswoman Desiree Fish, "Everyone is thinking about this and being sensitive." She noted that Americans might be ready for a Hollywood diversion Sunday.

"Everyone is going to need something to keep their minds off the bad news," Fish said.

Beyond ABC's Academy Awards telecast, the threat of war has prompted most advertisers to ask networks to pull their ads as soon as fighting begins. MasterCard has already made it clear that "once the war hits, we will be off the air for one week," Romm said.

Top network executives Monday called the situation "fluid" and "unpredictable." They said that if there is a war, they'll provide only news without any commercials for at least the first two to three days. That might be followed by five or six days of special reports interrupting regular programming and expanded news coverage during prime-time hours.

The major networks combined could lose nearly $50 million a day by going commercial free, and even more if war coverage preempts the Thursday night prime-time lineup, which is the most lucrative night for leading networks NBC and CBS.

"You can't really plan for this stuff," said Jon Nesvig, Fox Broadcasting's advertising president.

Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.

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