The flurry of outrage over “#oscarssowhite” built in advance of Sunday night’s Academy Awards telecast. But as cries for a viewer boycott reach their crescendo, an important aspect was overlooked: A massive tune-out doesn’t do the kind of damage boycotters think it does.
While Oscar voters may be guilty of severe monochromaticism, ABC, the network that has made the biggest strides in telling stories that aren’t just about white Americans and which is now run by an African-American woman, is not. It’s ABC that will bear the brunt of the hurt — if any presents itself — of a boycott, not Oscar voters.
In 2011, ABC locked in a contract with the academy to air the Oscars through 2020, so until those rights are back in play, ABC is stuck with the audiences the Oscars produce. The Academy Awards are consistently the top-rated nonsports telecast every year. In 2011, this looked like a great business decision.
And it still does: The cost of a 30-second spot on the telecast has grown from $1.65 million in 2006 to around $2 million in 2016, research firm Kantar Media estimated. Total spending on ads in 2006 came in at $81 million; for 2015, which had no major nominees of color, the advertising haul was up 36 percent, to $110 million. If ABC runs an expected 30 minutes of commercial time, that would put 2016’s total around $120 million (give or take a few spots).
The argument for a big boycott is that driving down the value of these spots by shrinking the audience will result in financial pressure on the academy to recognize not all movies are made by white Americans. This is unlikely to be the actual result.
As is par for the course with major live TV events like the Super Bowl, ABC does not guarantee ratings to advertisers for the Oscars. Media buying sources say this is because they know what they’re getting — the biggest nonsports event on TV. As long as the ratings come in around a certain target, they understand the size of the audience depends on a great many things that are largely outside the network’s control.
Indeed, one source anticipates a record low (and significantly older) audience for the 2016 ceremony, but says that didn’t stop clients from lining up, as it’s still the biggest entertainment option on TV, and so worth the price tag.
In the case of a ratings drop that proves more massive than even the most dire prediction, a few marquee sponsors will be appeased with more spots in other ABC programming. However, for a company like LinkedIn, a first-time advertiser, the $2 million being forked over won’t get it anything extra.
ABC might run into a bit of trouble selling spots for next year’s telecast if 2016 turns into a true disaster, like the tuning out of at least 7 million people. But because of the agreement with the academy even if the network stands to make less money on ads, there’s no weaseling out.
And ABC needs every dollar it can get, right now: The network is in fourth place in the seasonal ratings race, behind Fox, NBC and CBS. While much of Wall Street’s scrutiny is being placed on the health of corporate sibling ESPN (both are owned by the Walt Disney Corp.), ABC saw its operating income in the last quarter of 2015 shrink 7 percent compared to the same quarter in 2014, and investors aren’t happy.
The network was able to raise ad prices for strong performers like “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” in the fall, but the commercial ratings for both shows (“Murder” in particular) have taken steep dives this season, and ABC has had to give away chunks of ad slots to make up for the eyeball shortfall.
ABC is home to the most diverse prime-time lineup on broadcast TV, from comedy “Fresh Off the Boat,” about the Chinese Huang family, to soapy dramas “Scandal” and “Murder,” which both feature black women as leads, to FBI thriller “Quantico,” starring Indian mega-star Priyanka Chopra.
Hitting ABC in the wallet just cuts back on the amount that can be spent on those shows while out-of-touch Oscar voters carp about having to create a more inclusive industry.