Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony faces the real possibility of ratings humiliation. The Oscar telecast will almost certainly draw a smaller TV audience than the Feb. 12 Grammy Awards.
True, Whitney Houston’s death the day before boosted Grammy viewership to more than 39 million. But that’s only part of the equation. The Oscar ceremony is gradually losing viewers.
In only two of the past five years -- and five of the past 10 -- has its U.S. audience topped 40 million, according to Nielsen Co. (Last year’s Oscar show attracted 37.9 million viewers.) By contrast, from 1990 to 2002, the audience never dropped below 40 million, and it swelled to 55 million in 1998, when the monster hit “Titanic” won Best Picture and 10 other awards.
The downturn isn’t inevitable. American TV viewers love competitions. “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars,” and football account for eight of the top 10 regularly scheduled programs. This year’s Super Bowl was the most-watched TV show in U.S. history, with 111.3 million viewers, beating the record set by the 2011 game.
Although TV audiences may be fragmenting, live events where fans have a rooting interest are still major draws. They give people something to argue about. They engage viewers’ passions. They create must-see TV.
So the Oscar telecast has great potential. At No. 9, it was still the only non-sports program to rank in last year’s top 10. (It ranked 10th among younger viewers, ages 18 to 49 -- another bad sign.) But the usual approach of looking for the perfect emcee and tweaking the live performances -- this year’s show promises a one-time-only Cirque du Soleil act -- won’t stop the decline. The Oscars are about the movies, not podium jokes and stage spectaculars. Generating audience enthusiasm requires more radical steps. Here are a few ideas for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, all designed to engage moviegoers’ interests without sacrificing Oscar voters’ independent critical judgment.
1) Split the Best Picture category into two, based on the number of tickets sold.
The argument here is simple. More people watch the Oscars when the nominees include beloved movies that the audience cares about. The biggest audience of the past five years, 41.7 million, came in 2010 when the Best Picture nominees included such box office hits as “Avatar,” “Up” and “The Blind Side.” (“The Hurt Locker” won.) The biggest audience of the past decade, 43.5 million, was in 2004, the year “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won Best Picture. And, of course, there was the famous year of “Titanic.”
As Hollywood historian Neal Gabler notes, however, Academy voters don’t like the movies that bring in the bucks, an attitude that seems to have intensified in recent years. “They are using the Oscars,” he suggests, “to stage a small protest against the sorts of movies they feel we the audience sadistically forces them to make.” The audience, in turn, stages its own protest by staying away -- or watching the show only for the evening gowns.
Expanding the number of Best Picture nominations to 10 in 2009 looked as though it might alleviate the problem. But this year the Academy sabotaged that plan by implementing a new nomination system of preferential voting. This process rewards polarizing movies like “The Tree of Life” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” which few people saw, many detested, and a few adored.
Suppose, like the many journalism awards that divide publications by circulation, the Oscars included a Best Picture (less than 10 million tickets sold) and a Best Picture (10 million tickets or more). Add to that a Dec. 31 cutoff date for counting tickets, which would encourage less crowding of Oscar-worthy pictures in the waning weeks of the year.
For 2011, selling 10 million tickets at the average ticket price of $7.93 puts a film in the top 38 of the year. (An alternative would be to borrow a concept from the music industry and limit eligibility to the Top 40, regardless of ticket sales.) Assuming no change in the release dates, two more-compact Best Picture categories might yield something like the following nominees:
Best Picture > 10 Million Tickets
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” “The Help” “Bridesmaids” “Super 8”
Best Picture < 10 Million Tickets
“The Artist” “The Descendants” “Hugo” “Midnight in Paris” “Moneyball” “War Horse”
If there had been two categories, it’s likely “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “War Horse” wouldn’t have waited until late December to open, giving them a shot at the 10 million-plus award.
These two slates of nominees would undoubtedly boost ratings significantly, if only because of all the Harry Potter fans. By drawing more viewers who actually spend money at the box office, the change would also provide valuable exposure for movies like “The Artist,” which have a small audience but are genuinely entertaining. And, who knows, a process that rewards ticket sales might remind Academy voters that a science-fiction movie like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” can be one of the year’s best. (It’s as good as “The Artist,” and much more haunting.)
2) Create a Hindsight Award for the Best Picture from 25 or 30 years ago. Nominees would be selected by the same process as the current year’s Best Picture nominees, but from the earlier year’s offerings.
What Gabler calls Hollywood’s “lust for respectability” manifests itself in the Academy’s notorious slighting of comedies and genre films, no matter how influential or well made. Hence the recent shutout of the Harry Potter films or the outrageous slighting of “The Dark Knight.” The Hindsight Award would give the Oscars a chance to rectify the most egregious oversights. And, regardless of genre, current enthusiasms may not pass the test of time. Looking back allows perspective and, of course, sparks lively debate and, hence, audience interest.
Here, the list of nominees is more important than the winner. (“Groundhog Day,” which received no Oscar nominations at all after being released in 1993, may arguably be a better movie than “Schindler’s List,” but it would never beat it in a vote.) A Hindsight Award would allow Academy members and the TV audience to revisit the best of the past. If such an award existed this year, looking back to 1986 the list might not only recognize such enduring popular favorites as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Aliens,” but remind audiences of why “Platoon” (that year’s third-highest grossing movie) and “Hannah and Her Sisters” were so celebrated in their day. And though David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” are probably still too outre for Academy sensibilities, they’d at least warrant consideration -- and some critical discussion.
As for 1981, the win by “Chariots of Fire” is one of the most ridiculous in Oscar history and enough all by itself to justify a Hindsight Award. In the academy’s defense, however, that year’s nominees didn’t include that many enduring films, and it’s quite possible that only “Raiders of the Lost Ark” would reappear on a new list. The un-nominated classics of 1981 range from “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” to “My Dinner with Andre,” “Body Heat” to “Stripes.” (Bill Murray vehicles often look good in hindsight.)
3) Add campaign speeches and live voting. “American Idol” and sports events share an appeal the Oscars lack: Something is happening that affects the outcome while the viewers are actually watching. Movie performances can’t be live, of course, but the ceremony could include a real-time element of argument and judging.
Here the Hindsight Award provides an ideal opportunity. Give each nominated film’s producers a fixed length of time to make its case with clips and an on-stage advocate. Although movie makers might prefer the comfort of showing only a video, requiring the advocate adds the compelling immediacy of a real person. It also poses an intriguing strategic question: Who would be the most persuasive representative? For real drama, instead of reading prepared statements, the advocates might appear in a debate format, answering questions from a moderator.
After the presentations, the live audience would vote -- a radical departure from Oscar tradition. As a new category, the Hindsight Award need not conform to the requirement that every far-flung academy member have a chance to vote. Instead, all 5,765 members could participate by choosing the nominees. To vote on the Hindsight Best Picture, you would have to attend the ceremony, a requirement that favors people -- both academy members and other guests -- associated with films up for Oscars, adding a certain nervous energy to the process.
Limiting the vote to those present would undoubtedly strike some members as unfair. But you can say that about the Oscars themselves. They will never be fair. But they could be more interesting.
(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies” and “The Substance of Style,” and is writing a book on glamour. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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