Every aspect of the Oscars’ unfolding identity crisis over the past year was about one thing: TV ratings. Suggestions of a “popular film” award, an attempt to shorten the show by airing some categories during the commercials, a calamitous hosting search that ended with no host—it was all in response to the audience for last year’s Academy Awards, which hit a record low of 26.5 million viewers after years of decline. Though the slippage reflected a larger trend of falling ratings for event television, ABC was still alarmed enough to put pressure on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to shake things up in search of a boost.
On paper, it worked. The 2019 show, which featured crowd-pleasing nominees such as Black Panther, A Star Is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody but ended in a Best Picture victory for Green Book, had an audience of 29.6 million, up 12 percent from last year. It’s the first upswing since the 2014 show, which was hosted by Ellen DeGeneres and included the smash hit Gravity among its winners. In other words, the Oscars remain the most watched nonsporting event on television overall. ABC’s fears about the show’s irrelevance may have been a little overstated (in fact, the network may have sought an earlier ending to better promote a new scripted show, Whiskey Cavalier, which aired after the Oscars). But could the ratings bump be used to justify further changes?
The answer, like the future of broadcast TV, is complicated. The time for panic doesn’t usually come after a ratings climb. Network executives and Academy leaders may be satisfied enough with this improvement to not suggest any more drastic moves for now. Most of the Academy drama this year was led by the outgoing president, John Bailey, who somehow persuaded the 54 members of the board of governors (a notoriously difficult group to herd) to approve the addition of a “popular film” category and the removal of certain awards from the telecast. Bailey is term-limited; his replacement is set to be named later this year. So this successor, conscious of the controversy that accompanied Bailey’s tenure, may not want to echo it.
More than anything else, the ratings bounce underlined the fundamental reliability of the Oscars as a televised event in a fractured viewing landscape. Yes, ratings have fluctuated, but people still turn on their TVs for crucial live events, and the Oscars ceremony is the biggest one in the world of arts and entertainment. Concerns about viewers’ attention being diluted by competing awards shows (such as the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild ceremony) mean that next year’s Academy Awards will air on February 9, shortening the campaign season and hopefully making it seem like less of a slog. But that was the only major change approved within the past year that felt prudent.
Everything else was trying to address a problem that the Academy’s governors fundamentally cannot fix on their own. While TV ratings have splintered across cable, streaming services, and the internet, the movie world still has plenty of colossal hits that dominate the cultural conversation for weeks or months at a time. Some of the highest-rated Oscar shows have matched up with high-grossing movies winning a lot of awards—1998 and Titanic (55.2 million viewers); 2004 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (43.5 million); 2010 and Avatar (41.7 million). But every one of those shows was followed by an inevitable decline. Even though the best indicator of a ceremony’s success is the popularity of the nominated films, the Academy doesn’t have much direct control over that.
In recent years, the show has been tweaked to make it more populist. After The Dark Knight missed out on a Best Picture nomination in 2009, the category was expanded to include as many as 10 features. Blowback over an all-white group of acting nominees in 2015 (and again in 2016) led to an aggressive expansion of Academy membership, a plan spearheaded by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a former Academy president. But AMPAS remains a voting body of thousands, and those thousands are going to produce consensus choices. Of the three blockbusters nominated for Best Picture this year—Black Panther, A Star Is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody—only Bohemian won a “major” award, for Best Actor. Black Panther took three technical categories, and A Star Is Born won only Best Song.
Those three films proved too polarizing for the Oscars membership, which is 69 percent male and 84 percent white, and has a last-reported average age of 63. Though Green Book was dogged by controversy throughout its campaign, the film fits right into the trend of recent Best Picture winners, which of late have been mid-budgeted, solidly acted dramas that make well under $100 million at the domestic box office (a typical benchmark for a major hit). Green Book is narratively worlds apart from The Shape of Water, Birdman, and Spotlight, but they’re all films of similar size and cultural influence that catered to a wide-enough range of voters.
If AMPAS wanted to really change things up to boost ratings, it would somehow need to point its membership toward rewarding bigger hits. But no number of rule changes can fully sway how people vote. This year, A Star Is Born seemed like a bona fide hit served on a platter to Academy members—a film about creativity and art, beloved by audiences, pitched at grown-ups, and directed by a multi-nominee actor (a formula that worked out for the previous winners Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson). But the movie lost in every major category. The Academy may care about ratings, but the biggest predictor of ratings is which movies win—and that’s something that can’t be dictated.