Oscar telecast in need of overhaul

A modest proposal to help out at-home viewers

I love the Oscars, love the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, love the work they do, love the staff and the members. (Well, some members.)

But it’s time for tough love. Folks: Ya gotta overhaul the Oscarcast.

It’s hard to present 20-plus awards and keep the show entertaining. So present half the awards off-camera. The show plays like gangbusters for the 3,000 people at the Kodak Theater. But what about the 800 million at home? Can we make some concessions to them?

With the first Oscar telecast on March 19, 1953, the Academy set the template for the format: Audience sits in a big auditorium and watches winners go to the stage to make speeches. Despite dozens and dozens of imitation kudocasts since then, nobody has changed the system much.

The Academy board has continually resisted proposals for off-camera awards. Each of the Academy’s branches has three board members, and nobody wants to be the one who “betrayed” his compatriots by agreeing that their branch could be honored off-camera. But steadily declining ratings for the Oscarcast in recent years tell the tale. The turnout for this year’s 80th annual ceremony fell to a record low of 32 million viewers.

The Oscars are supposed to reflect the moviegoing experience. While I love short films (live-action, animated, docu), how often do you see them on the bigscreen? For most filmgoers, they’re as anachronistic as Movietone newsreels and Dish Night.

So put those categories online, along with a bunch of other “non-money” categories. (The Acad could rotate them each year so that some are included in the telecast.)

The Acad could commission short films for the online categories, explaining the work and profiling all the nominees, so they wouldn’t be on TV but they’d get more attention.

With a pared-down presentation, there would be more time for entertainment. Some free tips:

  • Acknowledge some of the year’s big money-makers by having clips of stars and filmmakers talking about them.

  • Do remote-camera segments to prove there is life beyond the Kodak. Use a flurry of hosts: Chris Rock backstage interviewing presenters and winners, Whoopi Goldberg in a Midwest home getting some family to offer critiques of the Oscarcast they’re watching. Ellen DeGeneres in a multiplex asking film fans why they’re not at home watching the Oscars.

  • Do a segment on international films. Show moments from the year’s top pics in dubbed versions, and send someone to multiplexes around the world and ask moviegoers what they envision life in the U.S. to be like, based on films they’ve seen.

Feel free to use any of these suggestions. Feel free to ignore them, as long as you create your own.

For many years, I covered the Academy Awards winners for Daily Variety by sitting in our office and watching the ABC telecast. Finally, three years ago, I got to attend the show and it was an eye- opener. That thing is so much fun! And the telecast should convey more of that sense of enjoyment.

Every few years, AMPAS taps new producer, like the Zanucks or Laura Ziskin, to jazz up the Oscarcast. Inevitably, they introduce innovations that lengthen the running time, so the following year, the Academy goes back to Gil Cates and says “You produce it, and make it shorter.”

Cates — who is smart, talented and amazingly energetic — has been given a bum rap for years, being blamed for producing shows that are so traditional. It’s not his fault; he’s doing the job he was hired for.

I should add that Cates is too much of a gentleman to answer my questions on this topic. But one insider told me, “Look, it wouldn’t matter if Gil Cates, Steven Spielberg or Spike Jonze produced the show, the board will always insist on the same number of awards on the air. You can’t change the course of a glacier — you either go with it or get out of the way.”

The Acad is moving in the right direction this year by hiring new producers (Laurence Mark, Bill Condon), director (Roger Goodman), designer (David Rockwell), musical director (Michael Giacchino), etc. for the Feb. 22 telecast. All good moves. But they can’t do it alone.

Academy board members always say they want to uphold tradition. But it’s possible to maintain tradition without turning it into fossilization. (For a worst-case scenario, look no further than this year’s Emmycast, which was an embarrassment to the TV industry.)

Like it or not, when an org makes a TV deal, they must take the TV audience into account.

Change isn’t easy. But, folks, it’s for the greater good.

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