H'wood grumbles that show needs overhaul

For years, the brahmins of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences have viewed the Oscarcast as a sacred tradition.

However, with viewership of the kudocast hitting an all-time low last week, it’s clear that Oscar, now 80, is showing his age. Many members of the Academy — even conservative types that aren’t your typical squawkers — are grumbling that it’s time for a change.

But how? Should the ceremony segue to an “American Idol”-style vote by the public? Should nominees have to endure a series of “Survivor” style challenges to prove how much they want that statuette?

Of course, the Oscarcast would never stoop to adopting the conventions of reality television. And that’s part of its problem. As the granddaddy of awards shows, and the most prestigious honor Hollywood has to bestow, Oscar seemingly has the obligation of maintaining its dignity, even a little pomposity. But it’s also feeling pressure to reinvent itself for the YouTube generation.

After the Feb. 24 telecast, many Acad members had specific ideas on changing the show: Give out more trophies before the telecast starts, limit the broadcast to two hours, offer lengthier clips that demonstrate the actor’s prowess, the director’s technique, the writer’s way with words, etc.

Others have suggested that an interesting twist would be to announce the vote tallies — finding out not only who won, but who was runner-up, and how many votes made the difference for the winner.

One of the fundamental quandaries for the Academy Awards is that the event is designed to be a celebration of cinema — but it has to work first and foremost as a TV program.

TV producers surveyed say the Oscar telecasts feature too many dry craft categories that non-pros don’t give a hoot about. “If you’re seriously interested in prosthetic makeup, go to the Web and watch” a separate ceremony, “American Idol” exec producer Nigel Lythgoe suggests.

Broadcaster ABC has a lot to say about some of these mandates, such as running time and another proposal for a change in dates. But many in the biz think that the organization itself is a bit stodgy.

Even though the Academy hosts a Sci-Tech ceremony earlier in the month to honor technical contributions, members of various tech-craft branches would hate to see their members relegated there.

But the televised ceremony started in 1953 and many of the show’s traditions stem from that date, including the categories. (Though Oscar is about the film biz, when was the last time you saw a short subject — docu, animated or live action — in theaters?)

Critics think the Academy approach is outdated, but many in the org like the sense of tradition. Bruce Davis, who has served as AMPAS’ exec director since 1989, has always sought to maintain the prestige of the award, and decorum in the hoopla that envelopes the competition and the ceremony. Davis told Entertainment Weekly last week that “the audience is there for the aspects of the show that we’re a little embarrassed by,” including the red carpet.

Some have suggested that the industry should throw its weight behind a competing awards show that would have more fan-friendly award categories, like separate races for comedy, drama and action films.

But the growth of the awards circuit is part of the problem. Oscar has been a victim of its own success in many ways, observes multi-hyphenate Judd Apatow, who adds that he likes the Oscars just fine the way they are.

“Because there are so many awards shows, the winners (of the Oscars) are rarely a mystery, so the fun of ‘who will win’ is kind of gone,” Apatow observes. “I don’t know how you change that, unless they move the awards to early September and try to beat everyone to the punch — but the Democratic Party can tell you how that creates all sorts of other problems.”

The format for the telecast was set on March 19, 1953, when Bob Hope and Conrad Nagel handled hosting duties and Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” was crowned best pic.

That show, which aired on NBC from 10:30 p.m.-midnight EST on a Thursday, drew 82% of the viewing audience. ABC’s Feb. 24 telecast, which saw “No Country for Old Men” take the top prize, drew 29%.

With an average of 32 million viewers, the kudocast only barely topped the regular Tuesday airing of “American Idol,” which reeled in 29 million. (Oscar’s ratings are likely to inch up some next week when delayed viewing via DVRs is factored in by Nielsen.) In the demographic that matters most to advertisers, adults 18-49, “Idol” had the edge with an average of 14.7 million to Oscar’s 14 million.

A decade ago, the Academy Awards hit its modern-era peak when 55 million swooning fans watched “Titanic” sail off with the top prize.

But in the past five years, Oscar has struggled to pull in greater than 40% of the available audience.

So what to do? For starters, there seems to be unanimity among top TV producers that the show needs fewer award presentations overall. The Grammys hand out no fewer than 100 awards every year, but only 10 of them are presented on-air. The rest of the show is all about entertainment.

“American Idol’s” Lythgoe knows more about producing live TV than virtually anyone else these days, delivering four-plus hours a week of the smash Fox competish series. Lythgoe agrees that the Oscars are in desperate need of a revamp.

“You need to keep the pomp and circumstance, but still make it feel young and fresh,” he says.

Lythgoe’s had time to think about these issues. Last year, he and fellow “Idol” exec producer Ken Warwick were initially tapped to produce the Primetime Emmy Awards telecast. But their day jobs wound up overwhelming them, and they had to bow out.

Lythgoe says he and Warwick faced a daunting dilemma when looking to revamp that kudocast. They couldn’t figure out how to work around the sheer number of categories awarded on the show. (Emmy hands out even more awards on air than Oscar, with 28 last year.) There was no room for anything else.

“I’m not wanting to knock anybody, but we’ve got to go back to the drawing board,” he says. “We’ve grown up around it and we’re wedded to these formats. We keep adding more awards to these shows too.”

Mark Burnett, the producer who upended the TV landscape with “Survivor’s” elimination-style format, also says he’d take out the scissors if he had control.

“The Oscars are about the stars,” he says. “I’d make it two hours long and I would have the televised portion be the big awards. … It was three and a half hours, and maybe 10% involved big stars.”

Burnett speaks from experience. When he took over the MTV Movie Awards telecast last year, he made it a live event for the first time, and more importantly, he shortened it. The ratings shot up.

For the Oscars, Burnett suggest making the awards more relevant to mainstream auds by introducing a few genre-specific categories, such as best comedy or action film.

“I loved ‘No Country for Old Men,’ and would watch it again. The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis (in ‘There Will Be Blood’) was incredible,” he says. “But these weren’t the most relevant movies to the audience of today. I don’t know that a young audience went in droves to see ‘La Vie en rose.’ It’s great to acknowledge those, but there’s also nothing wrong with awarding hugely successful franchises.”

Lythgoe concurs.

“Personally, I was excited to see Marion Cotillard win,” Lythgoe says. “But how many people even know her? That’s the difficulty of the Oscars, they’re asking their peers to vote, and everyone tries to be classy and sensible. But it isn’t relevant to people going to the movies these days.”

Lythgoe says he’d focus on showing “decent clips” that are more representative of a movie or actor’s strength.

“I want to see why they won it,” he says. “That’s important, showing the audience a movie they may not have seen.”

Lythgoe notes that the Oscarcast also must now entertain an audience that is just as enthralled with celebrity as it is with big-screen stardom (think Paris, Britney, Anna Nicole, TMZ.com, etc.). For the Oscars to feel extra-special, the telecast has showcase only the brightest of Hollywood’s marquee names.

“We create celebrities nowadays,” he says. “The Web has given every single person the opportunity to be a celebrity. As a result, you’re going to have to give them the absolute best.”

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