I would very much like to meet the TV viewer who did not intend to watch Sunday’s Oscars broadcast on ABC, but did change his mind when they learned that skateboarder Tony Hawk, surfer Kelly Slater and snowboarder Shaun White ‘ will present a montage about James Bond.
ABC executives and the show’s producers seem to think this person exists. After a sharp drop in viewership last year (which followed several other sharp drops in viewership), this year’s program was aimed at appealing to a so-called wider audiencence. To achieve this, the producers made several widespread changes, including “fan-favorite” segments determined by online voting and the omission of eight categories – one-third of the awards – from the live broadcast. In the end, the fan-favorite elements did not achieve much as inspiring widespread mockery and give strongly “how are you, fellow children?“energy.
By designing pieces for some imaginary “average viewer” who may or may not actually be watching the ceremony, rather than trying to keep those who are real likely to turn in, the Oscars producers seemed to forget something fundamental about the ceremony and live television: People want to watch human moments. They do not want soulless gimmicks and tricks.
When people remember the Oscars, they remember moving acceptance speeches, star-studded musical performances and spontaneous and unwritten moments. Sunday night brought back many memories of what makes the Oscars what they are. Beyoncé gave the show a jubilant kick-off performs her Oscar-nominated song from “King Richard” on the same tennis courts in Compton, California, where Venus and Serena Williams began their legendary careers. “West Side Story” star Ariana DeBose gave a masterclass in delivering a moving acceptance speech when she became the first openly foreign woman of color to win Best Supporting Actress. Later, “CODA” star Troy Kotsur, who made history as the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar, similarly brought down the house and left no dry eye anywhere. The presentation of his award, Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung Kotsur declares victory in sign language and then looked tenderly and held his statue so that he could use both hands to draw. Who does not love such a moment?
In a strange twist of fate, the most discussed moment of Sunday night’s ceremony was also something no producer or CEO could have imagined. The Will Smith / Chris Rock, uh, incident left everyone at home and in the Dolby Theater absolutely stunned. (I feel especially bad for the “Summer of Soul” director and winner of the best documentary, Questlove, whose heartfelt acceptance speech was another reminder of why the human moments are what the Oscars bring – if only we were not distracted by what happened just before his victory.) The incident left everyone furiously wondering if Smith would address it in his subsequent Best Actor speech. (He has.)
Whether it’s heartwarming or shocking, these moments are why people are not just watching the Oscars, but live TV events in general. We are not here for the tedious gimmicks or bloated montages or seasoned presenter pairings. The moments that continue are those that producers can not just prepare by analyzing data or guessing what people want. This is the thrill of live television.
Let’s be clear about it all. At their core, the decisions behind the “shake” of the show are financial, not artistic or creative. For years, the Oscar ceremony’s TV ratings dropped, leaving the Academy’s solid contract with ABC and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising at stake.
Every year there is a shake-up about whether the program is too long, whether it needs a host, or whether the Academy needs to nominate more box office hits, and so on. – all in the name of “saving” the ratings. At the same time, many fans of the Oscars and the movies, who are likely to watch whatever, are likely to prefer the show’s organizers to give up catering to the lowest common denominator. When they try to please the widest possible audience, they end up pleasing no one.
Moreover, the decisions behind the show do not seem to be in line with what is happening with the awards themselves. As Justin Chang wrote for the Los Angeles Times last week, the Academy continues to nominate more inventive and groundbreaking films, thanks in part to its ongoing efforts to increase the diversity of its membership. But by making all these changes to the program to reach casual viewers, it seems as if the Academy has been embarrassed by the nominated films.
The decision to cut eight awards from the rush-hour broadcast and present it an hour ahead of schedule, then air snippets of the winners’ speeches, underscores that sense of embarrassment. It’s hard to imagine the program trying this approach again: Numerous Academy Members and Veterans in the Industry spoke out against. It is deeply insulting to the nominees, winners and members of those branches of the Academy. It’s also a missed opportunity to introduce people to the many components that go into making a movie.
On a purely aesthetic level, the eight truncated awards were used inelegantly in Sunday’s performance, furthering the insulting idea that they are secondary to the star awards. It’s also a miscalculation of what viewers might want. Some of the speeches seemed like it could have been memorable, if only it had not been so chopped up. For example, Riz Ahmed won an Oscar – and all we saw was a few seconds of his speech.
In the end, all that pruning and reprocessing did not even serve its intended purpose. The show still clocked in at three hours and 40 minutes, just as long as it would otherwise have been.
What will it take for ABC and the Academy to accept that chasing ratings is an impractical and misleading goal? (Probably a big economic shift, given the money involved.) Almost every live TV event is undergoing an ongoing rating crisis – see also: the Olympics and the Grammys, to name just a few of the most recent examples . For years now, our TV consumes fundamentally differently from what we did in 1998, for example, when a record 55 million people watched the box office man win “Titanic” Best Picture. The big ratings are long gone. People no longer watch that many live TV shows. Anyone who is just casually interested in the Oscars can browse through Twitter and read about it on their phones. It does not seem like cutting a third of the awards, trying to find some broadly attractive presenters, or creating, say,. A Best Featured Movie Category (which the Academy announced and then quickly abolished in 2018) will tilt the scales for a viewer who is on the fence to look.
Year after year, ABC and the Oscars producers desperately tried to drive viewers who might not tune in at all. They would be better off making a show that people who do care would actually want to watch, not one that felt like it was mass-designed by an algorithm.