The Oscars Is Prepared to Sell Its Soul for Better Ratings

The Academy has shown its willingness to diminish its stature as an institution that honors filmmaking in order to reach more viewers.

A woman poses for a photo next to golden statues on Hollywood Boulevard near the Dolby Theatre during preparations for the 2018 Oscars. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

The first sign of the Oscars’ growing inferiority complex came last August, when the Academy announced a series of changes intended to keep the ceremony “relevant in a changing world.” A new prize would be established to recognize “outstanding achievement in popular film,” though the parameters went undefined. The ceremony, which airs on ABC, would stick to a three-hour run time (it usually lasts for about four). And several technical categories would be handed out during commercial breaks, to keep the pace lively for audiences at home. The outcry in response to the patronizing-sounding blockbuster-movie award was loud enough for the Academy to indefinitely postpone that plan. But other major changes meant to bolster viewership are still in place.

Now, with the 91st Academy Awards less than three weeks away, little is definitively known about what will be part of the broadcast. After cutting televised recognition for categories light on celebrities (including, it seems, cinematography), the show’s producers are working to enlist huge stars as presenters and downplay less splashy segments that might drag out the ceremony. Who cares if the show ignores crucial, behind-the-scenes work in moviemaking? At least East Coast viewers will be able to go to bed by 11 p.m.

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).

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.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a trade group with 17 branches—actors, directors, writers, and producers, yes, but also makeup artists, cinematographers, editors, short-film makers, costume designers, and so on. While other televised ceremonies like the Golden Globes ignore those technical contributions, the Academy celebrates them every year, giving winners a massive global audience so that, for at least one night, they’re honored alongside the more prominent actors and directors they collaborate with.

The Academy’s thinking is that awards for Sound Editing and Documentary Short eat up minutes and help push the show’s barnstorming conclusion—winners in the lead acting, directing, and Best Picture categories—later into the night. But that was also the case when the Oscars’ ratings were high. The Academy Awards are meant to be about more than giving airtime to famous people; they’re fundamentally about recognizing the hard work and magic that goes into every level of filmmaking, from development to postproduction. Instead, the 2019 show is being optimized for a more casual viewing audience that’s been slowly diminishing anyway. If ratings go up, the various cuts could be deemed successful and incorporated into future ceremonies. If that happens, the Oscars as we know it may be over for good.