Expanded best picture roster changes TV show

Widening the Academy Awards field to 10 contenders for 2009 was hailed and criticized on various fronts, with some seeing the expanded roster as a crass, grade-inflating attempt to provide more populist appeal — thus boosting the audience’s rooting interest and, presumably, the kudocast’s ratings.

Less clear is whether having twice as many mouths to feed, as it were, will be good for the actual show.

Theoretically, more nominees — which could offer admission to popcorn movies and not just latte-sipping arthouse fare — will give producers a more colorful palette with which to decorate the ceremony. Having “The Dark Knight” among the best picture candidates in 2008 certainly would have justified giving that box office blockbuster a bigger role in the show, as opposed to having Hugh Jackman cheekily sing during his opening number about how he intended to see “The Reader” but hadn’t gotten around to it.

More movies, however, also presents a few headaches, beginning with how the producers adequately service all of them without crafting a 10-movie opening musical tribute that would cause Jackman or Billy Crystal to collapse a lung. And while the Oscar telecast isn’t rigidly timed in a “Throw out those clips, we have to be off by 11!” way that other awards are, the benefits associated with incorporating widely seen contenders could easily be offset by a disjointed, unfocused show.

In that respect, the Emmy Awards — widely praised by critics, including the breezy efforts of host Neil Patrick Harris — delivered a reminder that award shows needn’t be held captive by the popularity of their nominees. Sure, most people aren’t watching “Mad Men” or “30 Rock,” but if the telecast moves along in a briskly entertaining fashion (and given the heavy female audience skew, half the emphasis is on fashion anyway), a dearth of nominees grossing $200 million in the U.S. isn’t automatically a Nielsen death sentence.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always used its annual showcase as an opportunity to celebrate the year in film; it’s just that this year, the connection between the awards and movies that viewers might have seen will possibly be less tenuous than in the recent past.

Nevertheless, increasing the slate of best-picture hopefuls only goes so far — and can’t address other structural flaws beyond the control of the Academy or its designated producers. These include the fact that with most of the roughly two dozen awards devoted to technical categories, less than a quarter of the recipients are recognizable to the vast TV audience.

The harsh truth remains that if producers were creating an awards show from scratch, sound guys and film-short recipients wouldn’t receive their career-topping moments in the primetime spotlight. Such moments are part of Oscar’s charm, of course, and explain why adding to the traditional best-picture menu won’t necessarily yield a more sumptuous feast.

Then there’s the draining glut of made-for-TV pre-Oscar award showcases that have sprung up — often mitigating the suspense surrounding who will win. Nor can organizers ignore the tug of gravity, which has reduced tune-in for virtually every major event except the Super Bowl. In their desperation to pump up ratings, producers have tried all sorts of gimmickry, from promotable hosts to interactive elements — many aimed at a younger audience that simply wasn’t weaned with the awards-show habit, as its parents were.

On the plus side, the uptick in this year’s Grammy, Oscar, Tony and Emmy ratings (in some cases, admittedly, coming off disheartening lows) underscores that there’s still life in these major academy-backed presentations. The Emmys also discovered that grouping categories under headings like “drama” and “reality” actually streamlined the telecast while giving it thematic coherence, as producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark did in shaping the most recent Oscar telecast — endeavoring, as Mark put it before last year’s show, to “bring back a little bit of party flavor.”

Including a couple of blockbusters in the balloting certainly couldn’t hurt. Yet weighing all these factors, the real key might be less about how many dogs are allowed in the fight than the perpetual struggle of finding the most inviting way to show them.

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