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  Oscars coverage

  ABC Hopes Switch to Sunday Boosts Viewership

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 1999

Super Bowl Sunday. Oscar Monday. For television's top-rated annual events, those days have been a given for years.

Taking their cue from the Super Bowl, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and ABC have decided to change the game plan and broadcast on Sunday for the first time.

The 71st annual ceremony honoring and promoting movies also will start at 8:30, a half-hour earlier than its customary kickoff time. Substituting wine and cheese for chips and dip, Robert Rehme, the president of the Academy, said he can picture Oscar parties held in people's homes much like Super Bowl gatherings.

"Now we can make it an all-day event," Rehme said. All day depends on where you live.

The annual Barbara Walters pre-Oscars special starts at 7 p.m. on ABC. Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis will guide a new half-hour back-stage show at 8.

The big ceremony follows, hosted by Oscar-winning actress-comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who also emceed the event in 1994 and 1996. Both of Goldberg's previous turns at the helm were nominated for Emmys. Six-time host Billy Crystal declined the Academy's offer this time, Rehme said.

The decision to change the ceremony to Sunday was discussed as far back as six years ago, when the Academy renewed its five-year contract with ABC, said Rehme. "But we don't do anything too quickly around here," he added.

Although the awards show has occurred on every night of the week but Sunday, Mondays have seen the most action – 32 times – since the event first was broadcast nationally in 1953.

Traditionally, Mondays were a lackluster ticket-selling night at the local cinema, and staging the awards then, it was thought, would help the competing entertainment fields get the most revenue and visibility from the program, Rehme said.

That's no longer an issue, he added.

The earlier start time has obvious benefits for ABC, which has aired the show each year since 1976 and last year bought the broadcast rights through 2008.

Sundays have longer prime-time periods than Mondays – 7 to 11 p.m. versus 8 to 11 p.m. – which may help when award-winners give effusive thanks and tributes that would have pushed the 31/2-hour ceremony into the after-midnight programming zone.

"We've wanted to start the show earlier to finish the show earlier," Rehme said. "There's a large drop-off in the last half hour. When you get to midnight, you nod off."

Also noteworthy, Sunday has about 2 million more viewers than Mondays, said Stephen Battaglio, the New York bureau chief of the entertainment trade publication the Hollywood Reporter.

That's a boon to advertisers who are doling out a record $1 million for a 30-second spot this year, Battaglio and others said.

Spokesmen for ABC as well as Fox, which broadcast the Super Bowl, said the two events are the most-watched annual shows on a single network.

The Super Bowl has more viewers, earning a 40.2 rating and a 61 share last January. The last Oscar ceremony earned a 34.9 rating and a 55 share. Each rating point equals 994,000 television homes, and a share is the percentage of sets in use tuned in to a program.

The viewership will matter most next year for ABC, because advertising rates depend on the previous year's ratings.

Last year's awards rated the highest in 15 years, said Barry L. Smith, an Academy publicist.

Hollywood is a business of illusions, but neither Rehme nor Michael Davies, ABC Entertainment's vice president for series and specials, has any unrealistic expectations about matching 1998's numbers.

"Last year was a freak year," Davies said, largely fueled by the predominately young viewership of the film "Titanic."

This year's best-picture nominees are "Elizabeth," "Life Is Beautiful," "Saving Private Ryan," "Shakespeare in Love" and "The Thin Red Line."

Like all the best-picture candidates, "Shakespeare," with 13 nominations, and "Ryan," with 11, are set in either the Renaissance period or World War II. Few of the films – the remainder carry seven nominations – are necessarily oriented to all ages.

Without a "Titanic," the network hopes some new touches may boost ratings.

ABC bought the rights to broadcast the stars as they pose and promenade into the ceremony, held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center of Los Angeles. The tableau of such blithe pomp will be included in actress Davis's pre-show program, and only after that may other networks air those scenes.

But other networks have found ways to interview stars and fans. E! Entertainment, which is in its 12th year of covering the Oscars, will feature award coverage from noon to 6 p.m., a Joan Rivers-hosted program at the Chandler Pavilion from 6 to 8 p.m. and a post-awards show from midnight to 3 a.m.

Gil Cates, who is now producing his ninth Academy Awards show, said this year's program will honor a century of film.

Neither Cates nor anyone else would reveal any particulars, but he said the idea was to reflect on an invention popularized this century. Most of the films Cates will highlight will be English-language cinema.

Cates, who won an Emmy in 1991 for producing the ceremony for the 63rd-annual awards, said he "found no problems" with Mondays. But in terms of viewership, numbers for Sunday would be higher if only because people, particularly on the West Coast, would not have to fight traffic to get home in time for the broadcast, which is carried live throughout the country.

Academy and ABC officials said the switch to Sunday was not designed to hurt CBS's strong Sunday lineup of "60 Minutes" and "Touched by an Angel."

"There are a large number of award shows on weekends, and it's foolish for us not be on the weekend as well," Rehme said.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post

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