Oscar's nosedive brings TV specials to light

THE SILLINESS associated with awards season now officially extends through the annual postmortems, from those pouncing on disappointing ratings to advocate that the Oscars be transformed into “American Gladiators” to apologists insisting 32 million viewers is still fabulous despite a 20% dive to record-low levels.

As usual, somewhere between the extremes dwells reality, which stubbornly resists the siren song of simple solutions, despite the media’s penchant for boiling complex issues down into bite-sized, black-and-white bits for easy scorekeeping purposes.

As Variety’s Cynthia Littleton and Michael Schneider noted in an analysis contemplating potential ways to overhaul the Academy Awards, opinions vary widely regarding what drastic innovations might jolt the telecast back to its former ratings glory. Reality TV producer Mark Burnett proposed a few short-term changes that would almost surely help — among them shortening the program — as would an earlier start time, preventing East Coast viewers from needing to stay up ‘til midnight to learn who “The Oscar goes to…” for best picture.

Thus far, however, those weighing in have touched sparingly on a challenge that can’t readily be resolved, ignoring the most obvious explanation for audience declines plaguing everything except the Super Bowl — namely, a mind-boggling surplus of events that has reached saturation levels.

IN OLDEN DAYS the TV term “special” was derived from “spectacular,” but it retained a more conventional meaning — something distinctive (and rare) enough to stand apart from the crowd.

Today, the proliferation of viewing options clamoring for attention has made that a virtual impossibility. Marquee events like the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys serve as the final legs in awards-and-fashion marathons, as opposed to a much-anticipated “celebration of specialness,” with apologies to David Byrne.

The Super Bowl has weathered this erosion largely because the game evolved beyond mere sports into a national holiday commemorating America’s consumer culture — a tribute to our collective gluttony in regard to television and advertising. Nor does it hurt that despite the inordinate hype, none of the pre-game babble can completely foreshadow the outcome, as New York’s upset of the New England Patriots demonstrated. Alas, that’s hardly the case with the Oscars, where the trail of breadcrumbs strewn by the DGA, SAG and WGA honors all tend to point toward preordained results.

Set aside the Super Bowl, and it’s hard to find any major sports or entertainment franchises that don’t feel quite so major anymore amid the cacophony of choices. Part of that, too, has to do with the fact that pro football remains a relatively limited commodity thanks to its 16-game season, unlike pro basketball, baseball or the sheer tonnage of collegiate sports, where it’s not uncommon for games to run from morning until past midnight if Hawaii’s playing at home.

Even with all those games and events, because this ever-growing beast demands to be fed, channels are so desperate for sports and awards programming they’ve taken to manufacturing them. Constructs range from the aforementioned “Gladiators” revival to the Viacom networks’ home-grown awards for every demographic (MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike, TV Land, VH1) to CBS’ recent deal to broadcast mixed-martial arts, which, if you’ve never seen it, is really just a bar fight minus the beer and street clothes.

VIEWED IN THIS CONTEXT, talk of seriously revamping the Oscars provides good reason to tread cautiously, given the absence of a clear causal relationship between wilting ratings and the show itself. After all, it’s not like people took one look at Jon Stewart and fled for the hills. They simply didn’t bother to show up in the first place.

Based on that, undergoing painful contortions to become more “young and fresh,” as “American Idol” mastermind Nigel Lythgoe suggested to Variety, seems pointless if that’s not going to yield discernible benefits — a bit like the lovelorn subjecting themselves to extensive plastic surgery before realizing the problem was their personality or, worse, something beyond their power to influence.

Selling out usually leaves behind its own bitter aftertaste. The seller’s remorse in witnessing the Oscars or Emmys become nothing special would likely be even more profound should these decades-old ceremonies experience the indignity of being rouged up only to discover the makeover was all for naught.

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