New York (VARIETY) — Despite worries about ratings, the upcoming Oscar show shapes up as a financial windfall. The March 23 telecast will funnel a record $78.3 million in ad spending into ABC’s coffers.

None of the five nominated films is exactly “Titanic” in terms of box-office results, but ABC will pocket an average of $1.35 million for a 30-second spot, up from about $1.29 million per half-minute spot last year.

And advertisers figure that the prospect of war may only further hype audience interest in this supreme escapist kudocast.

ABC senior vice president of program sales Geri Wang said, “The Academy Awards is the telecast that pulls in heavy-hitting decision-makers among its viewers, as well as people who are generally more upscale and educated” than those watching any other entertainment show during the broadcast year.

Advertisers such as P&G, General Motors, McDonald’s, American Express, Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch, AOL Time Warner, Kodak and MasterCard are already signed up.

“ABC’s success reflects the strong advertising marketplace,” said Mel Burning, president of U.S. broadcast for Mediavest. “With its glamour, glitz and high ratings, many advertisers regard the Academy Awards as the right place to showcase their products.”

No ratings guarantee

There’s so much demand for the Oscar telecast, Wang said, that ABC will not give the advertisers any ratings guarantee. If the special falls off in the ratings, there’ll be no make-goods (i.e., free ads) for underdelivery of viewers.

“Our target demographic is 35 to 50 years old, college-educated, entrepreneurial, lives in a big city and makes at least $125,000 a year,” said Jeff Kuhlman, head of corporate communications for the Cadillac division of General Motors. “The Academy Awards is one of the best properties for reaching that audience.” Cadillac is stepping up big time, forking over about $9.45 million for seven 30-second spots on the telecast.

Of the five films nominated for best picture, three — “The Hours,” “The Pianist” and “Gangs of New York” — have not drawn huge numbers of people to theaters, and ABC is hoping that will not result in lower ratings for the Oscarcast. Past Nielsen experience shows that if few people have seen the nominated movies, the ratings tend to reflect that lowered interest.

Focus on war

A number of Oscar advertisers have put together focus groups to explore what to do in case the United States is at war with Iraq. “Our research panels show that in the middle of a war viewers want to watch news and information,” said Burning. “They’ll also want entertainment, but warm, fuzzy, family kind of programming, not hard-edged realism.” The Academy Awards fill that bill nicely.

Burning said that if the Oscar telecast goes ahead as scheduled during a war, advertisers might have to look carefully at the content of the spots they run during the show. “Humorous, irreverent messages may not be appropriate to the mood of the country,” he said. “You might see some patriotic, flag-waving spots produced for the telecast.”

In the event of a war, Burning continued, many of the advertisers will be on the edge of their seats, praying that none of the winners decide to use the occasion to deliver an anti-war diatribe. “The Academy Awards is not a political show, it’s an entertainment show,” he said.

“We have contingency plans if war breaks out,” said a spokeswoman for American Express. “If an ad we planned looks as though it might be misinterpreted and come off as in bad taste, we’ll replace it.”

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