It’s hard not to get that message from recent news reports about the upcoming Oscars. Left with no host following the disastrous hiring and resignation of Kevin Hart, producers are instead looking to recruit the biggest celebrities possible to dole out specific accolades. (The first round of presenters was announced Monday.) While it’s traditional for the previous year’s acting winners to give awards to new honorees, Deadline reported that the Oscars hadn’t yet asked the 2018 victors (Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Allison Janney) to present. The show also supposedly balked at featuring live performances of all five nominated original songs—including one from the megahit Mary Poppins Returns and another from the documentary RBG sung by the Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson—but producers later relented.
Collectively, these decisions suggest a desperate play for a bigger audience that no longer exists in the current, fragmented TV landscape. The Oscars’ ratings have indeed declined in recent years, but so have ABC’s total ratings in general, which dipped by 8 percent in 2016, another 11 percent in 2017, and 3 percent in 2018. Overall, traditional TV ratings are falling simply because people are consuming television differently.
Oscar ratings have always fluctuated. But audiences seem to care more about the popularity of the movies being considered, and perhaps the star wattage of the host, than about the precise format of the show. (The most-watched Oscars ever remains the edition that Titanic won.) The 2019 ceremony producers, Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss, tried to pick a popular host in Hart. But the resurfacing of the comedian’s past homophobic jokes and tweets—and Hart’s messy handling of the fallout—led to him backing out of the job. Now, the show is set to go host-less for the first time since 1989 (a legendary fiasco of a ceremony that opened with a famously baffling musical fantasia involving Snow White, Merv Griffin, and Rob Lowe).
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To offset the lack of an emcee, Gigliotti and Weiss may be trying to buttonhole a cavalcade of stars, but it’s much harder to use individual presenters to entice would-be viewers. Luckily for the show, many of the nominated films this year are gigantic hits—there’s Black Panther, the first superhero film to be shortlisted for Best Picture, and other box-office sensations like A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody. (No “popular film” Oscar was required after all, it seems.)
Backlash to the bowdlerizing of the ceremony is already beginning to build within the Academy. Prominent members have begun tweeting out their dismay that “below the line” categories will be announced during commercial breaks, with most viewers likely finding out about winners on social media as journalists in the Dolby Theatre share updates. “I’m offended by the proposed changes to the telecast,” the director and writer Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) tweeted last week. “Filmmaking is a collection of crafts and The Academy is the only awards show that honors and amplifies all. As it should be.”