Could Oscars, upfronts be next to tank?

With the Golden Globes effectively gone from the sked, what's next on the list of casualties if the writers' strike continues? There's a lot to think about when you consider a world without red carpets and upfronts, say top execs at ZenithOptimedia and OMD.

The cancellation of the Golden Globes this week has driven home the realization that the ongoing writers’ strike could jeopardize the big one – next month’s Academy Awards – and even threaten this year’s upfront presentations in the spring.

While NBC moves forward with plans to air news-based programming to substitute for the 65th annual Golden Globes, media buyers who’d booked inventory for the Canadian broadcast on CTV can expect prime time on Jan. 13 to look like this: new eps of Amazing Race at 8 pm, Medium at 9 pm and Law & Order: CI at 10 pm. Of course, there is the possibility of Golden Globes-related programming on CTV’s news and entertainment shows, as well as A-Channel or specialty, but the fact is the real thing is gone – leaving some media buyers and planners with work to do.

ZenithOptimedia president/CEO Sunni Boot and VP broadcast investment Florence Ng aren’t just re-planning due to the Golden Globes cancellation. They’re bracing for the same problem with the Academy Awards, which could be jeopardized for similar reasons next month. While Ng does expect good audience ratings for Sunday’s Amazing Race (the last ep before the finale), there are aspects to awards shows for which accept-no-substitute thinking can apply.

‘We have purchased significant inventory in that [time slot] to allow for the Golden Globes,’ says Boot. ‘However, for the sponsors of the Golden Globes, those dollars we’ve put on hold in the hope that the Globes will come back.’ And the Academy Awards? It’s the same thing. ‘People buy the awards package. It’s a program genre that’s part of a client’s portfolio – a premium-priced, blue-chip stock.

‘It’s very hard to find a replacement for the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes, but not in terms of ratings,’ adds Boot. ‘If you’re a spot advertiser, you’re going to make up those ratings, and you’re even going to make them up in terms of audience composition. The problem is that you can’t replace the environment.

‘An awards show is an awards show,’ Boot explains. ‘As good as Amazing Race or House is, it’s a different environment. You’re not going to get the glamour. It’s an environment you can’t replace. We selected this in the first place because it fulfills a strong consumer need and a communications goal.’

Ng concurs: ‘It would be extremely difficult to replace the Academy Awards, both the audience and the environment. In principle, we will work with the network to secure comparable replacements.’ But, she adds, ‘If no appropriate programming is available, we may have to consider re-investing the dollars elsewhere.’

OMD Toronto managing director Sherry O’Neil believes the Academy Awards and the US network upfronts will be cancelled (and both Boot and Ng agree) – as development season is upon the industry and the ongoing strike threatens to create a lack of new pilots. Of course the Oscars are still a part of current media plans due to deals made months ago, but the situation is not looking good.

‘We did have clients that had specific investments set aside for the Golden Globes,’ says O’Neil, ‘so now we’re looking for alternative opportunities. I don’t know what those are at this point, but it looks like the money will stay in television and we’ll reinvest it elsewhere. With the Academy Awards [skedded for Feb. 24], I don’t know if the Academy would consider pushing them back into March or April, but I’d certainly welcome that because we would prefer not to see them cancelled.’

Overall, O’Neil is not expecting a speedy resolution. ‘It would appear the strike is going to run for quite some time, because the broadcasters have not been affected really significantly, from a revenue perspective, as they’ve had first-run material through the fall, December and into January and February. It’s going to take more for them to feel the pinch.’

O’Neil expects the US studios will begin making announcements next week about exactly what product will be available, and says she won’t be surprised if the networks look to save money by getting out of the extravagance of the upfronts. ‘I believe the upfronts will likely be cancelled,’ she says. ‘I hope I’m wrong, but I believe that they’ll either cancel or delay it.’

Boot says the cancellation of the upfronts is one of the biggest issues the writers’ strike has forced the industry to consider. Heading into development season in a few weeks with writers still on strike could, she says, accelerate perennial debate about whether there’s ‘an innovation’ or ‘a different timetable’ that should ultimately replace the upfronts. For years, on both sides of the border, Boot says media buyers and sellers have questioned ‘this artificial September 1st run on the new season. Should it continue? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer.’

What Boot is sure about is that the writers’ strike is ‘doubling or tripling’ the time it takes for the media buyers and sellers to get business done. She says it’s a matter of ‘babysitting these buys daily.’ But she adds that recent headlines about NBC giving money back to advertisers are not so relevant in the Canadian TV market, as the situation here relates to overall poor performance and ratings, not necessarily the strike.

Boot says there’s still lots to choose from on television. ‘We’re looking at what percent of the portfolio may be compromised, and depending on the client, that can be as low as 4% or as high as 24%,’ she explains. ‘Surprisingly, we had one client that we did a complete assessment on and it wasn’t even 10% of the programming that we had selected.’

If viewers do leave the TV set when the effects of the strike begin to show up in prime time, Boot believes they’ll be back. ‘At the end of the day, the curiosity and the seduction and enjoyment of good prime-time television will remain. Will [viewers] find alternatives? If I was always a viewer of House, and House went away and I found some wonderful alternative – is there a chance of that happening? Sure, but it’s minor.

‘If you’re loving House, you’re not suddenly going to become enchanted with The Tudors and never watch House when it returns,’ Boot concludes. ‘We’ve been monitoring and gaining insights into viewing habits for years, and we just don’t think that’s going to happen.’