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Photo: ABC

The Oscars In Flux

by Alex Kirschenbaum Mar 18, 2022

The folks behind the Academy Awards are aware that the Oscars have a popularity problem.

Hollywood’s biggest award show has been grappling with declining viewership for decades, and has tackled that in a variety of ways. Last year’s Academy Awards, broadcast in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in a makeshift location and featuring several lesser-known movies in the major categories, garnered just 10.4 million viewers, making the ceremony the least-seen since 1974.

It’s unclear if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is aware that every arena of broadcast television, outside of the NFL, has seen precipitous drops in viewership, as audiences increasingly turn to recording broadcasts to watch later or opting for streaming subscriptions over cable packages and TV antennas. The Oscars themselves are not entirely the problem, it’s really the changing habits of consumers.

While still no closer to adding a Best Stunt Performance category to honor the brave men and women who risk everything for the coolest practical fights and explosions, the Academy has opted to address what it feels like is its biggest issue — its run time, which frequently clocks in well past three hours — by pre-recording eight of its craft-oriented Oscars: Film Editing, Make-up and Hairstyling, Documentary Short, Live Action Short, Animated Short, Original Score, Production Design, and Sound. The plan is to stream the pre-edited awards prior to the ceremony, and then to run further-edited highlights during the live ceremony. This has been happening for years. During the 2021 ceremony, the Sound Mixing and Sound Editing categories were condensed into one general Sound category. The Lifetime Achievement Oscar was moved off the telecast schedule years ago. This approach is not the answer.

It’s very disappointing that these categories will just be reduced to highlight-reel clips during the live ceremony. What about dividing the Oscars into two separate nights to address the show length issues? The Academy could make the Oscars a weekend-long event, like a sports tournament, and keep people talking about it live for twice the time.

The run time of acceptance speeches for “below the line” crew members has frequently been cited as an issue in retaining viewer engagement year-to-year. And to an extent, that may indeed be something worth addressing. That said, the Academy Awards presentation pads its run time with plenty of superfluous montages and super-cuts that feel more expendable than recognizing these technical accomplishments. Surprisingly, the Oscars’ decision to move beyond hosts for a few years actually worked pretty well, as the ceremony still had plenty of funny celebrities to supply banter for the actual categories.

Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes and Amy Schumer are set to be the ceremony’s first hosts since Jimmy Kimmel in 2018. Here’s hoping they offer a fresh and fun perspective to the proceedings.

A “Fan Favorite” Oscar has been created, votable via Twitter, in an effort to address the ceremony’s current lack of a “Popular” Oscar. The fact that the ceremony frequently honors intriguing art-house movies over box office heavies has come under scrutiny in recent years. Though this viewer may not agree with all the nominees for Best Picture, I don’t think kowtowing to popular taste and just letting sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes flood the gates is necessarily the solution, either. Dune is the only blockbuster picture to make the cut as a Best Picture nominee, and that movie is itself the second feature-length adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel (there was also a TV miniseries).

Given how easy it would be for fans to flood the vote with some terrible options, this seems like a dangerous idea. Qualitative merit of the movies that might be honored aside this is not a horrible concept to goose interest, it just seems somewhat hackable.