Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fixing Oscar?

As you may have heard this year's Academy Award telecast was the lowest rated one ever. And in case you didn't hear, here's John Oliver of The Daily Show letting Jon Stewart know all about it

And that diminshment in ratings is causing some people, or at least Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times to declare that like every other aging Hollywood star Oscar needs "major surgery."

IT'S now painfully obvious that the Oscars need what nearly every aging star in Hollywood has already had -- a face-lift.

The ratings for the show couldn't have been any worse if they'd been stuck with all of Jay Leno's strike-show guests instead of Jon Stewart and Co. The numbers hit rock bottom, down a million viewers from 2003, the show's previous low ebb, and that was right after a war started. Even worse, the ratings for younger viewers dropped off a cliff, falling almost 25% from last year's telecast. The film academy elders should be very, very worried.

Like the evening news broadcasts, the Oscar is a relic, a cobwebby holdover from a bygone media age when Big Events earned Big Audiences. Those days are going, going, gone. The Grammys' ratings were down, the Emmys were down, the Golden Globes would've been down even if it hadn't been eviscerated by the strike.

Younger audiences just don't believe in appointment viewing anymore. Their lives are full -- they don't stop what they're doing to watch Oscar night. The only show that's held its ratings is the Super Bowl, which had at least three things the Oscars lacked: inventive, state-of-the-art production; a whole second show inside of the show -- splashy new commercials, which are often more involving than the game itself; and a far more suspenseful fourth quarter. Is there really anyone in America who didn't get best picture, best director and three of the four acting awards right in their Oscar pool?

In an era where everyone's lives are twice as busy and their attention span has been cut in half, it is simply suicidal to put on a pokey three-hour-plus award show. As the legendary B-movie master Sam Arkoff once put it, when trying to sell a film that stunk: "If you can't make it a better picture, you can always make it a shorter picture."

The academy should heed his advice. Here's how we watched the Oscars in my household: We TiVo-ed the broadcast, came back from Little League practice, hopped in bed with some snacks and zapped through the commercials, the musical numbers and most of the craft awards, giving our full attention to Stewart's routines, the clip compilations and the big awards and acceptance speeches, starting with best animated feature. Total elapsed time: one hour, 45 minutes, tops.

Our family's version of the Oscars, thanks to the magic of TiVo, didn't drag a bit. If academy chieftain Sid Ganis is going to staunch the bleeding, he needs to put the telecast under the knife. Although I'm sure it will cause a firestorm inside the academy, the technical awards -- sound editing, sound mixing, visual effects, makeup and costume design -- have to go. No one outside of the academy wants to hear acceptance speeches from people they've never heard of, no matter how heartfelt. The Oscars may have once been a celebration of craft, but the world has changed. Today's audience wants a horse race. The show is just bad TV.

The same goes for those cringe-inducing renditions of the best original songs. With the exception of a wonderfully spare rendition of "Falling Slowly" from "Once," they were all massively overproduced, drenched in so much glitz that they lacked any emotional resonance. I mean, who did the choreography -- Michael Bay? And speaking of Ganis, why is the academy president on camera, taking up valuable time explaining arcane voting procedures? It's just dead air.

There is plenty of precedent for streamlining the Oscar telecast. Just watch the Grammys. In a typical telecast, the Grammys have roughly 20 musical performances while giving out 10 actual awards. The other 100-odd Grammys are presented earlier in the day at a pre-award show with presenters, acceptance speeches and a full audience. As an experiment, this year's pre-show was webcast on with the idea of expanding it into a bigger event in the future.

MTV stages a Web simulcast for its Video Music Awards, with separate hosts situated backstage, giving fans watching on the Internet a chance to see some of the backstage action.

These are the kinds of innovations the academy desperately needs to embrace. It should have a full-on Web broadcast, anchored backstage by someone who's been in a Judd Apatow movie, with live remotes from Oscar parties around the country. The technical awards, beefed up with appearances by younger actors and filmmakers as presenters, would have enough appeal to merit their own telecast, perhaps on a movie channel like AMC or Turner Classic Movies the night before the Oscars. Freed from the weight of academy ceremony and tradition, they could serve as a proving ground for fresh ideas and new talent that could be incorporated into future Oscar telecasts.

Having a separate, less formal tech ceremony would allow the academy to experiment with new ideas, whether it's trying a Web simulcast, showing user-generated parodies of Oscar films or launching a Web-sponsored "pick the host" contest. The show could add star appeal by doing interviews with stars preparing for the big show the following night, playing fun clips from the Independent Spirit Awards or having a live remote from an industry Saturday-night party.

MORE important, some of this informality needs to filter into the actual Oscars. The most obvious place to take the TV audience is backstage. People yearn to get behind the velvet rope, so why not offer frequent glimpses of what's going on backstage during the show? The host is only on camera for a small percentage of the three-plus hours. Wouldn't everyone want to see what Jon Stewart is up to backstage between his official duties?

Today's audience loves being inside the bubble. The NBA regularly mikes players and coaches, letting us eavesdrop on the coach's locker room exhortations and the players' jokes and conversations, replaying the best bits minutes after they've happened. If the image-conscious NBA can do it, surely the Oscars could let us have a feel of what's going on in the green room too.

When it comes to live programming, there is no better TV in America today than what you see every week on ESPN and Fox Sports. It's where practically all the best innovation and new ideas come from. As anyone who's ever been to the academy's nominee lunch will attest, the Oscars' creative team is long in the tooth. With all due respect, it's time for some new blood.

I disagree with a lot of that.I know ratings are still important and the arbiters of quality but instead of expecting massive ratings an appropriate scaling down of expectations in the face of this new media reality would probably be better than having the Oscars, the pride of Hollywood and a symbol for decades of glitz and glamour to the world going the way of the MTV Video awards (which last I checked were dipping in the ratings as well, Britney Spears or no Britney Spears.) A lot of the appeal of the Oscars is the mysterious veil of celebrity and the perfection- if you were to let people see how, for example, Katherine Heigel was jonesing for a ciggie, sure it may appeal to the more TMZ crowd and thus get ratings but it would also be a loss of the mystique and magic which is Hollywood's stock and trade. Of course it's an exercise in excess, but that's Hollywood
His whole point summed up in "The Oscars may have once been a celebration of craft, but the world has changed. Today's audience wants a horse race. The show is just bad TV" isn't that just appealing to the lowest common denominator, one that doesn't appreciate or celebrate craft? I don't think that denunciation or apathy concerning skill and craft is what this world needs more of right now.
Sure this may be good tv but can we at least try to do something better?

I agree a lot of the fluff can go but I don't really think having celebrities off site handing out the Technical awards will really draw voters to watch to see if a guy they've never heard of wins for a film they've never seen and taking your inspiration by the "innovation" of ESPN which as a bastion of self congratulation puts the Oscars to shame, not to mention their own time filling endeavors.

Also the whole "get a face lift" angle- aren't there enough beautiful people who in their pursuit of lost youth have ended up destroying their appearances? Whatever happened to aging gracefully? It can be done- look at Julie Christie or Helen Mirren.

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