In 2004, the Oscars handed 11 trophies, including Best Picture, to the most commercially successful film of the previous year, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. No surprise then, that the ceremony’s TV ratings jumped 30 percent from the previous year, with 43.6 million people tuning in. Viewership has fluctuated since then, but in 2014, it was roughly the same as the year The Lord of the Rings won big. The Best Picture winner in 2014? Twelve Years a Slave, a film that domestically grossed about 85 percent less than The Return of the King. In other words, viewers tune into the Oscars for many reasons, and the relative popularity of the winning films is just one of them.
But that hasn’t stopped pundits from partaking in the typical doomsday talk that accompanies a down year. Sunday’s Oscar telecast attracted 34.3 million viewers, an eight percent decline from last year, though not the lowest on record (2003 and 2008 were worse). Writing in The New York Times, Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply attributed this decline to a loss in black viewership, the host Chris Rock’s apparent lack of fame, the lower profile of the nominated films, and the hypothesis that “soapbox moments to espouse causes—and there were plenty on Sunday—have historically turned off viewers.” Heaven forbid. The “cause” this time was the Academy’s need to diversify its membership, in hopes of avoiding another year with an all-white slate of acting nominees. But bluntly confronting that onstage was necessary, and blaming Rock’s performance for a slight ratings dip is short-sighted.
It’s clear where the drumbeat of criticism for Sunday’s ceremony is coming from inside the industry. A story in Variety suggests that ABC, the network that airs the ceremony, is pushing for more creative control as it renegotiates its TV contract with the Academy. Right now, AMPAS gets to pick the producer and the host, and set the overall tone for the ceremony. According to Variety, the Disney co-chairman Ben Sherwood (who recently engineered the resignation of ABC’s well-regarded head of programming Paul Lee) is using declining ratings as leverage to seize control. The article’s anonymous sources called Sunday’s ceremony “lackluster,” pointed to the Golden Globes as “a pretty slick show” that the Oscars could look to emulate, and decried Rock for “going back to the same theme” of Hollywood racism throughout the night.
The idea that anyone who watched 2016’s Golden Globes ceremony and saw something worth imitating is laughable. It was an absurdly messy affair that featured a comedically tone-deaf hosting job by Ricky Gervais, run-on speeches from drunken winners who seemed as confused as the viewing audience, and Mel Gibson as a presenter. As for its ratings? It drew 18.5 million viewers—down from the previous year. By comparison, while this year’s Oscars certainly had their own tone-deaf moments (the gag with Asian children dressed up as accountants being one example), they also gave Rock free rein to criticize Hollywood’s systemic racism in his opening monologue, while the Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs made a sterling on-air appeal to members and the viewing audience to help forge a path to a more inclusive future.
Yet according to Barnes and Cieply, “Nielsen data reflecting quarter-hour segments of viewership indicates that Sunday’s show appeared to lose viewers as glamour (and movies) increasingly took a back seat to activism,” noting that “Sunday’s ratings fluctuated and then fell more steadily in the show’s last hour, as issues of sexual assault, environmentalism, and gay rights were put forward by presenters and award recipients.” This seems like a false equivalence: Lady Gaga’s performance and Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech were among the most-discussed moments of the night, and the idea that the ceremony’s ratings declined as it ran well into the night (wrapping at around midnight EST) and viewers went to bed seems much more logical.
As for the relative unpopularity of the nominated films, it’s hard to understand what snubbed hits should have been nominated to somehow guarantee a ratings victory. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was well-represented in the nominations, but its secrecy-shrouded Christmas release rollout basically precluded its chance at major awards attention because it couldn’t even screen for voters. While the Academy overlooked the glut of superhero films and sequels that dominated the box office this year (as it has in most recent years), big hits like The Martian, The Revenant, and Mad Max: Fury Road were all Best Picture nominees. If the argument is that Jurassic World and Furious 7 should have been included as a nod to their big ticket sales, that seems facile in the extreme.
Yes, in the years that the Oscar favorite is also a bona-fide phenomenon, like Titanic, there’s a clear ratings boost—the 1998 ceremony’s record 57.3 million viewers will likely never be beaten. But the rest is statistical noise, further confused by a changing TV audience that includes younger cord-cutters and the increasing prevalence of streaming television. According to Variety, ABC made a handy $110 million in advertising from last year’s ceremony despite similarly down ratings, and it’ll likely clear about the same this year. Why mess with what clearly still works?
The simple fact is that the Oscars’ creative independence is important. This year’s telecast producer, Reginald Hudlin, is a respected African American director and executive who gave Rock the room to take on #OscarsSoWhite as he saw fit, and gave Isaacs the airtime to respond to criticism. Those are the kinds of things ABC, or any major network given control, would meddle with. For better or for worse, the Oscars still stand apart from the year’s other awards ceremonies. Robbing them of their autonomy would take away a major reason for tuning in—and that’s the only ratings argument that should matter.