Oscar a hit on TV whose popularity shows no signs of waning

It has faced many competitors, wannabes and emulators, but the annual telecast of Academy Awards remains the biggest awards show on television by a country mile.

“After the Super Bowl, there’s nothing bigger on network television,” says Bill Croasdale, president of national broadcast for ad agency Western Intl. Media. “It’s big time. It’s event television.”

In fact, the Oscars are so identified as a TV event — and so many subsequent awards shows have been invented solely with TV in mind — that it’s easy to forget that Oscar even existed before its small-screen telecasts.

The first ceremony was held May 16, 1929, and TV didn’t meet Oscar until nearly a quarter of a century later.

While radio had a broadcast monopoly on the awards since the second ceremony, NBC aired the first TV version of the kudosfest March 19, 1953. Bob Hope, who hadn’t hosted since 1946 as the Academy had deemed him persona non grata due to his television ties, was asked back as emcee for the event’s TV debut because his popularity among small-tube watchers was uncontested. (Hope oversaw the proceedings at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood while Conrad Nagel took the reins in New York, with NBC cutting back and forth.)

The debutante event immediately broke all ratings records, becoming the most popular TV program to date. Reviews were positive, with Daily Variety summing up the reception with the headline “1st Major Pix-TV Wedding Big Click.”

The Academy estimates that the show is viewed in 100 countries, by 1 billion viewers. Some watch it live; others, because of the time difference, see versions that are edited for length and air tape-delayed.

Over the years, Oscar has added a lot of touches to spruce up its image. Arguably, the biggest change came April 16, 1966, when color was added. Since then, the Academy Awards have experimented with new hosts (Johnny Carson, Chevy Chase), multiple hosts (in 1972, the eclectic quartet of emcees consisted of Helen Hayes, Alan King, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jack Lemmon), and even no hosts.

In its early days, the presentation aired Wednesday or Thursday night. But the show was so popular, theater owners complained that movie houses were consistently empty. Since Monday was traditionally the slowest night for movie attendance, the solution seemed simple.

The 31st awards April 6, 1959, switched to Monday night. And while the day of the week has shifted occasionally, Monday has claimed a majority of Oscarcasts.

This year introduces a new chapter to Academy Awards history: the first Sunday-night broadcast. Television industry insiders say the switch can only help its ratings; there are more Americans watching TV on Sunday than any other night of the week.

Every year, the Oscars have Monday-morning quarterbacks — who this year actually will be chatting on Monday — repeating refrains that it’s too long, ends too late for East Coast viewers and that the production numbers are lame. And yet every year, millions of viewers nationwide can’t resist Oscar’s lure.

And the huge viewership is interesting because the initial reason for the Oscars’ success on TV has disappeared: the novelty of seeing stars of the bigscreen appear on the small screen.

“Part of the attraction was to see movie stars who you wouldn’t otherwise see on TV,” says Tom Shales, television critic for the Washington Post. “Now, movie stars sell themselves on ‘The Tonight Show.’ “

Although detractors have criticized the elaborate musical production numbers, Shales laments that the Academy has cut back on them. “I adore them,” says Shales. “I loved the year when Teri Garr danced and sang from the wing of a plane.”

He’s referring to a big number that opened the 58th annual ceremony. It generally was conceded to be less than spectacular, and Garr later remarked she thought she’d never live it down: “But then there was Rob Lowe.”

Only three years later, March 29, 1989, the opening number featured Lowe singing and dancing to “Proud Mary” with Snow White. Many were aghast (including Disney, which briefly threatened to sue) and the number has been held up as Oscar’s musical low point. Shales believes that this number is the reason the Academy has shied away from big song and dance presentations ever since.

Of course, that’s only one of many broadcast moments that the Academy would like to forget.

April 6, 1958, saw the first broadcast carried solely from Hollywood. It was not an auspicious event. Ready to end the telecast, Jerry Lewis discovered that the show had come up 20 minutes short and was told to improvise. Lewis grabbed a baton to conduct the orchestra while stars such as Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier and Sophia Loren began dancing. NBC eventually cut to a sports review.

Over the years, the Academy has insisted that the Oscars are an evening to celebrate films, not to espouse political causes. But presenters or acceptors regularly bring up causes ranging from the Vietnam War to Native American rights to Haitian boat people and Tibetan freedom, causing moments that alternately bewilder or excite viewers, given the energy of the declarations.

On the other hand, the spontaneity of live TV has brought some memorable moments. Few acceptance speeches were as touching as Louise Fletcher’s as she tearfully spoke and signed her acceptance speech, thanking her deaf parents for teaching her to dream.

And “You like me! You really like me!” has entered into America’s vocabulary — even though people who laugh at the phrase may not remember the source of it: Sally Field’s acceptance of her 1984 Oscar for “Places in the Heart.”

And, Snow White notwithstanding, Oscar has brought some memorable musical numbers. The relatively unknown Ann-Margret got a huge career boost when she camped and vamped through the 1961 song “Bachelor in Paradise”; Madonna, already a big star, got new fans with her restrained and sultry “Sooner or Later” from 1990’s “Dick Tracy.”

Many other socko numbers, ranging from Davis (“Talk to the Animals,” 1967) to Bruce Springsteen (“Streets of Philadelphia,” 1993) were able to tap into a unique singer’s energy fueled by performing simultaneously to a live audience and millions of TV viewers.

These are a few reasons why advertisers are lining up for the Oscarcast, as Western Intl. Media’s Croasdale points out. “They have a waiting list for that show,” says Croasdale.

This competition among the people who buy network ads has propelled the Academy Awards to the second most-expensive program on television. This year, ABC broke the $1 million per 30-seconds barrier for the first time.

That’s about a 9% increase over last year’s show, which rode the popularity of “Titantic’s” wave to a 34.9 rating/55 share, according to Nielsen Media Research. The nearly four-hour telecast averaged 34.2 million households and 55.2 million viewers ages 2 and up.

“This show is talked about for six months in advance,” says Tim Brooks, the senior VP of research for USA Networks and author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows” (co-written by Earle Marsh). “Every night on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ is a plug for the Oscars. The E! network gives its whole network over to it. Even if you are deaf, dumb and blind, you can’t miss that the Oscars are coming.” In addition, there are numerous syndicated Oscar previews, and just about every national and local news show features a pundit who will preview the event and predict winners.

Still, not everyone is won over. “It doesn’t seem to matter if they improve the show or not,” says Shales, who is a member of the camp who love to hate the Oscars. “It’s tolerable, enjoyable awfulness.

“My expectations are low,” continues Shales. “It’s a very pleasant surprise when it just doesn’t lie there.”

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