Who Wants a Smaller Oscar Ceremony, Anyway?

Though the stakes remain very low in the grand scheme of world events, it has been remarkable over the last few years to watch the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences so frequently step on its own feet. There’s been an awful lot of bungling since the organization really started getting worried about the Oscar telecast’s dwindling ratings, an anxiety that seems to have reached a fever pitch following last year’s barely watched, deep-pandemic ceremony.

Desperate to regain viewership, the Academy has consistently introduced plans to reshape the broadcast that seem to violate the very thing it is meant to be about: celebrating movies and movie fandom while advertising the industry’s glitter and might to people around the world.

The most recent plan to entice back apostate viewers—who are, let’s be honest, probably lost forever to the infinite options of streaming—is, like the Tony Awards did with performances, to pretape some categories and then present edited versions of those moments in the proper prime time broadcast. A shorter broadcast is, in the Academy’s and ABC’s estimation, a more popular broadcast. Predictably, this has outraged members of the affected branches, among them editors and short-subject filmmakers—just as it did when the Academy proposed doing this the first time, in 2019, before walking that plan back amid outcry.

There is also the matter of the Academy announcing that only nominees and guests will be required to be vaccinated to attend the March 27 ceremony, while presenters and musical guests will not. That news leaked—to an outraged response—before the Academy could present it in its own way. But no matter how managed the announcement was, it was likely always going to resonate badly with people irritated by the lack of consistency in the application of COVID safety protocols.

The hunt for ratings is to be blamed for both of these decisions. The Academy has long pursued the white whale of a tidy three-hour broadcast, which means trimming where it can, rushing things along rather than indulging in the four-hour orgy of self-celebration that used to be the defining Oscar vibe. And it would seem there are also some celebrities whom the Academy, and no doubt ABC, would like to have on the show, but who are not vaccinated. Anything to get those (presumably) big names on the lineup, even if it means a bit of selective hypocrisy that apparently confirms enduring suspicions that rich and famous people live by a wildly different set of rules.

This makes a certain cold, quantitative sense. The Oscars need eyeballs to stay off. But what’s apparently ignored in all this ratings-minded calculation is how the brand is being eroded in the process. It would be naive to say that ratings and ad dollars weren’t top of mind for the Academy and its broadcast network until just a few years ago. The Oscars have been a cash cow for decades—it’s only recently that the money has been harder won.

Still, the Academy Awards have for many years allowed, even encouraged, a grandeur to complement, or offset, that economic interest. Now it seems the latter force is overwhelming the former, tarnishing the Academy’s already-marred image.

The frustration of watching this all happen, as an Oscar fan since childhood and now a (somewhat) professional chronicler of the awards-season trek, is not a new feeling. In 2018, I wrote about the Academy hiring comedian Kevin Hart to host. He eventually backed away from the gig amid controversy over some past homophobic comments. But the fact that he had been hired at all, when his anti-gay jokes were publicly known and had been for years, suggested to many fans that the Academy and ABC didn’t really seem to care much about one of their core fan bases —people who reliably watch the Oscars every year, despite what looks like a decreasing care for their attention.

The Academy assumes as given that it will always have the respect, or at least interest, of a certain contingent of people—viewers, industry peers, even members—even as it continually makes decisions that undermine that support. Why, when the Academy is facing such an identity crisis, would it so blithely alienate a huge swath of its membership, frustrating loyal viewers in the process? Which master is being served here?

No Oscar fan (nor Academy member, for that matter) should expect money not to bear heavily on such a large production. But it is telling that the concessions made to navigate a changing economy seem so often to come at the cost of those most intimately involved with the ceremony. Paring down to what the Academy hopes is a more aerodynamic form means determining certain awards are of lesser value than others—though the ceremony itself has, until now, been careful to give fair consideration to every branch, from sound design to animated shorts.


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