Big Changes Coming To Oscars Telecast: What They Are, And What It All Means (ANALYSIS)

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The Oscars have officially gotten desperate, and it’s not a good look.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences – the producers of the Academy Awards, with a membership of Hollywood’s elite – has made some big changes to their annual telecast (although it was the Governor’s Board of 57 people, not the full membership, that made them).

All are problematic, they create more problems than they solve, and yet all are done in a bid to boost consistently sagging ratings (which hit an all-time low last year). Two of the changes disrespect and marginalize key industry artists, while a third will have an unpredictable but inevitable ripple effect – which may end up being more good than bad.

Let’s deal with the first two first.

  1. A Three-Hour Show; Not All Awards Aired Live
    In a commitment to wrangle in the bloated nearly-four-hour program to a tight(er) three-hour maximum, the Academy announced that, for the first time, they would not be airing all of their 24 awards live as they happen.

    Some of the lesser tech categories will be announced during commercial breaks, with a brief montage of snippets from those speeches packaged together and aired later in the broadcast (the Tonys do something similar, not that it’s helped boost their ratings any). In this compromise, every award winner will still be seen but not live, or in full, and within a more managed framework.

    For a show that’s supposed to be about honoring the work, this is a dishonor to many of the below-the-line workers who deserve their one public shot at recognition.

    What they should be cutting are the peripheral “bits” meant to entertain but are mostly groan-worthy time-sucks, not ditching the very things that awards shows are about: the awards, and the award winners.

  2. A New 25th Category: “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film”
    In other words, a quasi-People’s Choice Award. It’s already being dubbed The Popcorn Oscar.

    Ten years ago, in an effort to include more popular films in the Best Picture category (and hopefully attract more viewers), the Academy expanded the top prize from 5 nominees to a possible 10. That hasn’t worked out as they’d hoped, with slots being filled by more art house fare rather than tentpole blockbusters.

    This “Popular Film” category will now grant the imprimatur of “Oscar Nominee” to the likes of Marvel, Star Wars, etc., but it will also, in effect, ghettoize these films to a lesser-than status, making it more of an insult than an honor. (The same can be argued for the Best Animated Film category – I would – but at least that genre is rooted in a very specific, specialized discipline.)

    This is particularly offensive in a year when Black Panther has a legitimate shot at a Best Picture nomination. Now, with this new category, many voters will not feel compelled to nominate it (or other blockbusters) in both categories and likely relegate it to the obvious “Popular” slum, thus denying it its artistic validation as a Best Picture nominee (not to mention a major breakthrough for Marvel Studios).

In the effort to increase its viewership, the Academy has undercut its integrity.

It’s now officially a whoring shill for eyeballs and ad revenue. Yes, it’s always been a marketing tool for the industry, no one denies that, but for 90 years that was within a framework of merits and standards. Not anymore.

And the third change? Starting in 2020, the telecast will move up from its late February date to early February, the Sunday right after the Super Bowl. This change is more understandable if still ineffectual.

The purpose is to shorten the awards season so that the Academy Awards broadcast still has some vitality to it after all of the lead-up awards shows (Golden Globes, SAG, Critics Choice, BAFTAs) and other highly-publicized honors (Critics Groups and Industry Guild awards). By the time you get through all of those from early December to late February, the Oscars feel a bit like an also-ran.

But here’s the problem with that move: those other awards aren’t going anywhere.

Sure, closing the gap may appear to help, but that will be negligible. More to the point – and here comes the ripple effect – rather than condensing the three-month Awards Season down to two, what’s more likely to happen is that the three months will probably start sooner. Rather than an early December kickoff for the initial critics group awards, those will likely be scheduled sooner into early November.

The ripple effect on what that means for studio release dates, not to mention film festival windows and patterns, is hard to predict at this point. The result, however, may not be all bad.

One possible evolution could see studios begin to siphon out their awards hopefuls throughout the entire year rather than piled high in the onslaught at year’s end. That could mean better viewing options for cinephiles more often, while also making the Hollywood blockbusters more competitive since the scheduling pool will be more mixed than segregated. (As a counterpoint, here’s a take from IndieWire that portends nothing but disaster in the wake of this shift.)

The response to all of this on Film Twitter has been uniformly, resoundingly, and vehemently opposed. You can see a few examples here, here, and here. A small minority are more sanguine, like Oscar blogger Sasha Stone. She makes the point that the Academy will simply be nominating films that they would never have nominated under any other circumstances so, you know, what’s the big deal? It’s a win-win.

Still, since so much anger has been pointed straight at the notion of a “Popular Film” category, I’ll honestly be surprised if it ever actually sees the light of day on Hollywood’s biggest stage.

Which begs the question: is it actually a bluff?

Given how the pushback was fairly predictable, one wonders if the Academy is sort of doing a Jedi-like ninja move with the “Popular” category, offering it up knowing full well that it will be a sacrificial lamb. It’s the one thing they’ll be able to cut that allows them to say they “hear” the response and concerns, thus giving them cover to keep the other changes that they’re more likely committed to.

It can also have the added benefit of sending a message to Academy members that, yes, they need to start taking all movies seriously, not just the ones at film festivals.

Regardless of motive or strategy (my hunch may be giving them way too much credit), the changes reveal a misreading and misunderstanding of why the Oscar ratings keep dropping. It’s not because the Oscars are increasingly out of touch with the masses, too liberal, or even that they’re too long (they’ve always been long). The reason is simple:

All ratings are down.

With the exception of the Super Bowl, the ratings for every kind of broadcast has steadily declined in the era of ever-increasing viewing options. It’s a dynamic that is out of the Academy’s control because it’s out of everyone else’s control.

Bottom line: all awards shows are in steady decline but, in ratio, the Oscars are still far-and-away the most watched (as they always have been). In fact, even with its ratings at record lows, the Academy Awards remains the most-watched non-sports broadcast of the entire year.

That will always be impressive, and that will always be enticing to advertisers.

Look, I get the resolve to not simply “give up” to the winds of change. I get trying to do everything you can to fight the tide. Any responsible group would. But it all should be done within a set of standards, staying anchored to a core set of artistic convictions. These moves don’t do that. They betray those convictions.

They also won’t reap any noticeable uptick in ratings, either (the first two won’t, anyway, but the earlier airdate might), so expect them to be short-lived for a year or two at most.

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