Are awards shows losers of the left-right debate?

TV critics offer plenty of sober assessments

While media analysts pondered such tangibles as competition from the NBA Finals and an overall glut of televised award shows, one conservative pundit had a very different idea as to why broadcast ratings for the 2003 Tony Awards had plunged to an all-time low.

“Why the collapse in public support? Perhaps it’s because the public has become disgusted by the Tonys’ sexual agenda,” wrote Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, a conservative activist group. “This year’s show could have been advertised in the TV listings as ‘Gay Celebration Tonight.’ ”

The Tonys’ continuing ratings struggle — and Bozell’s quantum-leap assessment of them — have hardly been singular events of late.

A number of award telecasts experienced sharp year-to-year viewing drops recently: The Golden Globes’ TV audience dipped 37% in February to 16.8 million viewers and the People’s Choice Awards telecast was down 29% to 9.8 million in January. Even the Oscars dipped 21% in 2003 before experiencing a nice bounce-back the last two years.

TV critics have offered plenty of sober assessments.

“Sunday is now a tougher night to get an audience for anything,” notes TV Guide critic Matt Roush, who attributes the Globes’ poor outing primarily to competition from ABC juggernaut “Desperate Housewives.”

“I think it’s just a matter of there being too many award shows,” adds Neal Justin, TV critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “It’s just burnout.”

Still, right-leaning pundits — who’ve long suspected that Hollywood functions as a nerve center for a vast left-wing conspiracy, and that its award programs serve as flags planted firmly into the terra of a broader culture war — have begun to suggest that Americans are clicking away from kudocasts in droves because they’re fed up with perceived political agendas.

“People are really tired of all the political business that keeps creeping into (award show) broadcasts, and there seems to be more of it,” says Ann Hodges, a TV critic at the Houston Chronicle for 40 years. “They tune in to be entertained by these people; they don’t care what they think politically.”

Certainly, Michael Moore’s Oscar acceptance speech at the 2003 ceremony for “Bowling for Columbine,” in which he lambasted President Bush, is often given as the prime example of this. But that was the same year Oscar’s producers, cognizant that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was just under way, worked diligently to ensure the etiquette of their 2003 event was appropriate in tone.

“We’re all good Americans, so we’ll try to (make the broadcast) a show that we can be proud of,” said show producer Gil Cates at the time.

“I think most people are aware of the scrutiny of their comments these days,” says People’s Choice Awards exec producer Carol Donovan, noting both Moore and Mel Gibson managed to strike bipartisan tones during their public appearances, despite the topical heat of their respective pics. “They take a big risk now when they put their opinion out forcefully.”

For their part, producers of A-list kudofests — and the broadcast networks that air them — seem acutely aware of the current political climate. And they’ve been largely successful of late at keeping acceptance speeches short and awards recipients “on message.”

At this year’s Academy Awards, even Sean Penn, one of the more vocal critics of the Bush administration, demurred from political commentary.

So are hosts, presenters and honorees really using the podium as a soap box more these days?

“It’s the elephant in the middle of the room come awards time during the Bush era. Who’s going to say what, and what’s it going to be,” says Andrew Breitbart, who’s led an Internet-based crusade in recent years to discredit vocal left-leaning thesps including Barbra Streisand and George Clooney. “You tend to find a lot of actors comfortably parading the bumper-sticker slogans of the left at the most inappropriate times, which can only be interpreted as a middle finger to most of society.”

Of course, the right’s wrath transcends what’s said during the acceptance speeches and the monologues and goes right to the movies and TV shows being celebrated — something to keep in mind during a current award season that includes such provocative contenders as “Jarhead,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

For Oscar, this kettle boiled over a bit last year, when conservative pundits — after months of fruitless speculation that Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” would receive an agenda-fueled pic nom — took the Academy to task for not tapping Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” for the top prize.

“They’re so obstinate and stubborn out there, they’d rather go to Sundance and fall down in the snow wearing a Robert Redford sweatshirt than they would learn what it is the American moviegoing public actually wants to see,” noted conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.

To that end, beyond just its kudocast ratings, right-leaning pundits say Hollywood’s very box office blood is being compromised by what Breitbart calls a “monolithic point of view” that allegedly values its artistic agenda over a fiduciary duty to American mainstream consumers.

The question remains: Does any of this really explain why over 10 million Globes watchers fled the broadcast this year?

“One of the great myths is that this town is a powerhouse of left-leaning Hollywood types ready at a moment’s notice to start the revolution,” said Richard Masur to the Nation, back when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. “The fact is it’s only a small group of people willing to stand up on either side for their agendas. If anything, the left-of-center folks often get more activated as they try to counter the weight of Hollywood decision-makers, who are more often right of center.”

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