The future of the struggling Hollywood fête most likely lies where its audience consumes content these days. Enticing them to watch is the hard part.
to assess the state of the Oscars, look no further than Thursday’s publicity event organized to brief the Hollywood press on the plans for the 94th annual awards ceremony. The presser featured producer Will Packer and co-hosts Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall, who promised a fresh and celebratory telecast on ABC. They even teased the possibility of a cameo by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
It was a valiant effort that did little to mute the criticisms about who is getting snubbed, who will get airtime and exactly who is planning to tune into the Sunday night telecast. Meanwhile, most people seem unaware of who the major contenders are, per a recent Los Angeles Times survey. Even Netflix, which once again leads this year’s nominations with 24 in total, told Forbes through a spokesperson it has “no plans” to carry awards shows, adding that subscribers don’t associate live events, including sports and news, with the platform.
“There’s going to be a lot of people holding their breath at ABC Monday morning,” says Mitch Metcalf, a former NBCUniversal scheduling executive who now works as a consultant.
That’s because the Oscars are starting to feel like entertainment that is, well, a century old. Last year’s broadcast reached an all-time low of just over 10 million viewers, a drop of more than 50% from 2020’s already dismal ratings fall. That’s not good news for the world’s largest entertainment company, ABC parent Walt Disney Co., which has held the broadcast rights for the Oscars since 1976 and is on the hook to deliver the show through 2028. Representatives for Packer did not respond to requests for comment; ABC declined.
Disney is paying the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a reported $1 billion for the rights from a deal that was signed in 2010 and by 2015 was already looking like a dud. Ratings peaked in 2014 at 44 million and have been on a steady slide ever since. Toss in heaps of disdain–the pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011, Kevin Hart’s departure in 2019 after homophobic tweets surfaced–and a torrent of criticism about the lack of diversity that spawned #OscarsSoWhite in 2016 when all 20 acting nominations went to white people.
All of it has left the industry wondering if the clock has run out on the Oscars broadcast, once one of the year’s most reliable must-see television events. It’s not a matter of if but when the Oscars, like much of entertainment today, gets sucked up by the streaming revolution.
“Definitely, no doubt,” says Neil Begley, a 30-year veteran of media analysis at Moody’s Corp., noting that it will be preceded by a slow drip of broadcast relevance for the show. “It’s only a matter of time where subscriptions and engagement decline and it’s time [for networks] to flip the switch.”
The question for Disney executives, who say they have sold out all of the advertising spots for Sunday’s show, is how long to drag it out on broadcast. “It’s in the best interest of the academy to get the most eyeballs in front of [the Oscars] to continue that brand,” Begley says, adding that Disney could easily negotiate to add streaming to their contract with the academy, if that is not already part of it.
Paramount+ has been streaming the Tony Awards live for the past two years, the first to make the leap. Amazon followed this year with the Academy of Country Music Awards, which, like the Grammys, was an annual event on CBS. The March 7 program was a departure from the past—two hours compared with the usual three-hour CBS program and a focus on performances rather than speeches–and had less focus on ratings, according to two executives who worked on the show. Amazon instead zeroed in on how viewers engaged with other parts of the online retailer’s business, like its fashion arm, where viewers could pick up official merch and country-inspired outfits, and a “shoppable” hour on Live, its QVC-like platform, to purchase other goods, including a pre-order for ACM host Dolly Parton’s new book.
It’s a convenient sidestep for streaming services, which do not reveal full details about viewership and are not tracked by the third-party ratings services that follow broadcast ratings on behalf of advertisers. MRC, which produced the ACMs this year, said they did not have viewer numbers for the March 7 production and instead pointed to upticks in music streams for Parton and Morgan Wallen, who won album of the year. Representatives for Amazon and CBS declined to comment.
For now, Disney will have to play out the rating game, regardless of how discouraging the data. All 60 commercial slots for Sunday’s broadcast have been sold at an average of $1.7 million per spot, according to Standard Media Index. Back-of-the-envelope math says that amounts to $103 million from ad sales, by Forbes‘ estimation—excluding any international revenue and some variables that aren’t public knowledge—which is less than the $124 million the academy says the network paid for the rights to this year’s broadcast. Representatives for ABC did not respond to requests for comment.
Since Disney already controls two streaming services (Hulu and Disney+), moving the Oscars away from a reliance on broadcast viewership, and where an ad-free experience would be more attractive to viewers, is inevitable, Begley says.
Still, it leaves producers with a core problem they have yet to solve: keeping movie fans from tuning out in droves.
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