Plan A – “Add a popular film category,” said the Academy. “That might help bring back those who have long since abandoned the Oscars, because most of the movies we nominate exist in the rarified worlds of critics, eggheads, Film Twitter, and the coastal elites. Most ticket buyers just want to go out and have fun on a Saturday night.” Making matters worse, does anyone even watch network TV anymore? How can the Oscars cater to those who still do, boost their ratings, and make their advertisers happy to pay $2.6 million for 30 seconds? Hey, I know – get a popular host.
Plan B – Get Kevin Hart to host. Kevin Hart with his how-many-millions of Instagram followers? Kevin Hart, whose mere presence might have boosted ratings. Okay no, that didn’t happen because there was such fierce outcry from Oscar fans, Hart decided to step down. So facing potentially devastating ratings – even worse than last year’s all time low – “Let’s do it with no host!” they said. “It’ll be fun!” they said. That should really help them advertise and lure people to watch. No big star attached, because nobody wants the job, nobody needs the grief. Okay, maybe The Rock would’ve done it – but did anyone ask him?
Plan C – Drop some of the awards from the telecast. That’ll save some trouble, as anyone who’s ever been to the Oscars will know. (I go every year. I sit up high, drink too much, and nearly pass out by the end of it. Remember who made their getaway just before they announced the Moonlight upset? Yeah, that was me) Each category announcement seems to demand a total set change — it takes a long time to bring out the presenters, read the nominees, wait for the winner to get to the stage… No one likes it when the speeches are cut short and despite many years of begging people to shorten their speeches, no one really does because who ever could? It’s a once in a lifetime moment, winning an Oscar. Now if it’s me, I honestly wouldn’t care if I won one on camera in front of a worldwide audience. Winning would be honor enough. Send it to me FedEx. That’s a huge audience there watching, even those of us stuffed into our fancy dresses and heels in the nosebleeds are watching and clapping. But this choice to shunt some winners off the live broadcast has really riled folks. Really really riled.
No one who loves the Oscars has liked any of these plans – A, B, or C – because people like things as they’ve always been. Hardcore Oscar watchers are used to raising hell and having those hell-raising addressed by the Academy – who, I must say, has been very accommodating in the years I’ve been covering this race (20 so far). The Dark Knight didn’t get in? Okay, let’s expand the ballot to embrace more movies. The Academy is always caught between satisfying fans and satisfying their own members – most of whom apparently hated the expanded ballot – so the compromise has resulted in a broken and bizarre system of an expanded slate of nominees but still only five slots on the ballots. It isn’t working. Everyone knows this and yet no one knows what to do. Roll it back to five, Oscar watchers throw a fit. Expand it out to ten, voters throw a fit.
When the OscarsSoWhite hashtag erupted on Twitter, the Academy made the admirable decision to invite an unprecedented number of new members in an effort to change the demographic balance. What other group would ever, in a million years, add thousands of new members to increase the voting power of women and people of color? No Other Group Would. In fact, the goddamn United States of America wants to do the exact opposite, and tries to suppress those same voters. The Academy made the change because it was the right thing to do and they were willing to say, okay, let’s try to change the story.
Last year’s ratings took such a massive hit so clearly something had to be done. But what? Do they risk another finger-wagging tweet by the army of Oscar Tweeters and add a popular film category? Would that even help? Does taking four categories off air help their ratings because it shortens their show? Were people turning off their TVs whenever cinematographers names were mentioned? Doubtful. Probably nothing would have boosted ratings more than Kevin Hart hosting, for whatever that’s worth, but with that out the window, the Oscars were left with very little else to tinker with. If the Academy only had three plans, hardcore Oscar watchers sure put the kibosh on the first two. In retrospect, did we choose the right battles to win?
The Academy has no doubt set a bad precedent by capitulating every time Oscar Twitter stages a protest. Some things matter, some things don’t. I know, I’m lucky since I get to watch the Oscars live. I will see the awards handed out and those who watch devotedly at home won’t until they show the winners giving their speeches later in the broadcast. The new twist is that the categories being cut can be seen live in their entirety as they occur, via online streaming. (And don’t worry, I got your back – make sure you follow me on Twitter.)
I will grudgingly side with the Academy, mostly because I see them trying to satisfy everyone and still have a show. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I also understand why people would be upset. Though the uproar over the popular film category came during the same time when everyone knew about the plan to cut some categories from the love broadcast, but the fury over the new category sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Which would be worse, we now have to wonder, a popular film category or taking some winners off of live TV? They were planning on doing both, and may still have to if ratings continue to dip. But how much can be changed to win over new voters if every change alienates the most loyal viewers?
Is the answer just to take the show off the network altogether and have it become a niche event seen only by loyalists on a streaming channel? They can’t. They’re obligated by contract to ABC to keep it going. Which by the way, brings up another awkward ding. It’s been pointed out that none of the cut categories have any nominees for Mary Poppins or Black Panther. Which of course happen to be ABC/Disney’s ponies in the race. Put in starker terms: Mary Poppins and Black Panther got lucky and have immunity from having their filmmakers cut from the broadcast. That’s a funny coincidence that a lot of people don’t find funny.
So as much as I sympathize with the thorny issues the Academy is trying to juggle, I’m confused and conflicted. For example, why will none of the Live Action Short nominees be broadcast live, but the Animated Short and Doc Short will be? Who made that decision? How did those two categories escape the ax? Live Action shorts are just as important as the other two. Cinematography and Editing are two of the biggest categories outside the top five and it’s odd they would choose to keep, say, the sound categories and not two of the biggest. Could it truly be that ABC said: hands off the categories where Black Panther is nominated? Who made the decision to eliminate Cinematography and Editing? Those two specialties are closely aligned with Best Director and they’re fundamental aspects of film itself. No movie can exist without them, and thus I think they should matter a great deal. Let’s face it, all of the categories matter. What’s to be cut next year? Supporting Actress and Actor? Writers? It’s a Sophie’s Choice that nobody wants to make.
But rather than complain about the Academy’s solutions, how about offering up better ones? They’ve shown that they do listen to their most devoted fans. Can anyone out there recommend a fix that makes everyone happy? Of course not, so that means a lot of people will be unhappy on Oscar night. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but desperation is a bad look for a celebration. Here’s hoping the ratings improve this year, although honestly ratings are down across the board for event television. There is no reason to think the Oscars will be spared. Question is, what else will be sacrificed to save it?