Big Games, Big Stars, Big Money

The communal television experience has often been declared dead amidst an ever-fragmenting media landscape, but a funny thing happened on the way to that funeral. At least that's what ABC hopes will be the case with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin hosting the 82nd Academy Awards.

With significant audience upticks ranging from the Grammy Awards to the Super Bowl, the broadcast networks are realizing that major events still have plenty of life. And that's good news for a recession-beleaguered industry, especially given the rising prices of big-ticket properties.

Big ratings mean big ad dollars and big promotion for the networks' other shows. The equally good news for the networks is that some industry observers don't expect a subsequent boost in rights fees for awards shows; fees for the Oscars and Grammys are already north of $20 million for each telecast. On the other hand, a "bubble" has been predicted by some for sports rights.

"I don't think there's room for more money in most of them," says Deana Myers, senior analyst at SNL Kagan. The one exception could be the Emmys, which rotate between the four major broadcast networks and are a relative bargain at $7.5 million.

Last year's telecast on CBS was up 8% compared to the low-rated 2008 show. The Emmy contract is up after this year's ceremony, which is set to air on NBC Aug. 29 and may be telecast live on the West Coast. "There's definitely room for growth there," Myers adds.

With the March 7 Oscars on ABC the next big event on the docket after NBC's coverage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, many expect the upward trend for events to continue.

Industry experts suggest that the uptick is due to a perfect storm of factors. For award shows, reasons may include more entertaining productions, and a migration from the obscure nominees of recent years to broader-appeal entertainers and content.

Sporting events may have gotten a boost because of the critical mass of HD TV, and even some Mother Nature-induced luck. A deluge of snow on the East Coast kept many viewers in front of their televisions for CBS's airing of Super Bowl XLIV and the post-game premiere of Undercover Boss.

"I'm not going to tell you that when we saw the storm coming we didn't smile to ourselves," says a CBS executive.

Snow aside, the proliferation of HD has kept more viewers at home for sports programming, say analysts, with spikes for this season's NFL playoff games and the BCS championship contest. The Super Bowl is always a blockbuster, but this year's game, which saw the New Orleans Saints prevail in their first Super Bowl appearance, was watched by more than 106 million viewers. It stands as the most-watched program in television history, toppling a 27-year-old record held by the series finale of M*A*S*H.

And Disney-ABC executives are banking that the Academy Awards will also find ratings gold. Like last season's Emmys, which opened up top categories to more nominees to include more mainstream fare, the Oscars has expanded the Best Picture category from five to 10 nominees.

"I think it's good for the business," said Disney President/CEO Bob Iger during a CNBC interview last week. "More people have seen the pictures that are nominated. And that can't be bad from a ratings perspective."

Indeed, James Cameron's Avatar, which surpassed $2 billion in ticket sales to become the top-grossing movie of all time, is a contender for Best Picture and Best Director. Cameron may not be known for elegant acceptance speeches, but he nevertheless draws a crowd. The last time he took the Oscar stage-for Titanic in 1998-the telecast hit a high mark with more than 55 million viewers.

"I don't think it's realistic to expect [the Oscars] to do what they did when Titanic won a dozen years ago," says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. "But there's no reason not to believe that it will do a stronger number than recent years."

Oscar-cast producers should take a page from the Emmy, Grammy and Golden Globes telecasts and keep the scripted and often painfully corny presenter back-and-forth to a minimum and focus instead on the stars, Adgate adds.

"The last few years, these shows have been in a tailspin," he says. "[But] they've gotten better. They're very streamlined. They cut down on the banter. They cut down on the speeches. They're much more entertaining."

Wired consumers hungry for content with immediacy may also help drive tune-in. But in the end, it probably all comes down to who's onstage. Last month's Grammys featured a 3D tribute to Michael Jackson, with awards going to mainstream artists including Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Ratings were up more than 35% year-to-year.

"There was a point when these shows were red-hot," says one network executive. "The last big Academy Awards show was when Titanic was hot. And then we started to get obscure with more and more of the nominees and awards for movies that virtually no one saw. For years, the Grammys were dominated by hip-hop. Now we're at the point where pop is coming back. Performers like Taylor Swift bring in new audiences to these shows.

"It's not the show. It's the talent."

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