Attention, Las Vegas odds makers: Your proposition bets about next year’s Oscars can now include the likelihood of jocular references to “Meet Dave” and “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.”At first blush, anointing Eddie Murphy to host the 84th annual Academy Awards presentation feels like a head-scratcher. Granted, Murphy’s a multi-talented star with ample name recognition, but his box office hits this century have largely been confined to providing the voice of an animated donkey. Still, award show hosts have a good deal in common with NFL quarterbacks: They tend to get too much credit when things go well, and too much blame when (more likely) telecasts turn out poorly. On that second point, moreover, there’s one key difference: Analyzing the game film, hosts seldom handle the ball enough to fundamentally alter the outcome. The dirty little secret regarding award hosts in recent years is that their selection is almost invariably more promotional than pragmatic. Given the challenge of building anticipation for traditional events amid today’s over-crowded landscape, emcees are chosen to build advance buzz but then often occupy muted roles within the actual telecast. The most puzzling and amusing aspect of this, frankly, is how the media fall for these calculated come-ons time and again, only to express surprise when hosts don’t fulfill the hype they have dutifully helped stoke. That was certainly true earlier this year when Oscar producers tapped Anne Hathaway and James Franco in what most rightly characterized as a cynical ploy — given the benefits advertising-wise of reaching adults under 50 — to lure younger viewers to the set. While Hathaway escaped mostly unscathed, Franco was roundly panned for being a non-factor. USA Today critic Robert Bianco spoke for many by concluding the actor “seemed to be preparing for a remake of ‘Dazed and Confused.’ ” Yet the modern history of award shows reflects no shortage of disappointments and near-no-shows, even for widely admired comics with loyal followings, like Jon Stewart and Chris Rock. Tapping Rock as Oscar host in 2005 provided the show with a “jolt,” the New York Times wrote. But beyond a mini-stir over his jokes about the relative stardom of Clint Eastwood versus Jude Law or Tobey Maguire, the comic disappeared for long stretches during the show, and producers didn’t exhibit much effort to integrate him into the telecast past the opening monologue. Much of the problem has to do with an inherent dichotomy built into award telecasts, other than perhaps those on MTV — namely, the desire to foster the illusion of irreverence and spontaneity, without unduly upsetting anyone or venturing too far off script. Nor does it help that Hollywood has become a favorite target of political conservatives, who carefully monitor marquee events, eager to pounce on some fresh outrage from the likes of Sean Penn or Michael Moore. In terms of latitude, the Oscars at least possess one major advantage over virtually every other kudocast in that they aren’t rigidly timed. By contrast, the Emmys and Golden Globes can’t indulge many flourishes that would risk running past their allotted three hours. (Don Mischer, who is producing the 2012 Oscars along with Brett Ratner, has ample experience jettisoning material on the fly during the Emmys to ensure they don’t run a moment over.) Of course, daring to be genuinely unpredictable brings its own potential headaches, such as the mixed reaction to Ricky Gervais treating the Golden Globes like a celebrity roast. To some, Gervais refreshingly let some air out of a room filled with pomp and pomposity; to others, his remarks were “mean-spirited,” as Robert Downey Jr. put it, and at the very least approximated inviting someone to a party, then spitting on them. Given those factors and reactions, the deck is stacked against any host — much less Murphy — breaking free of the tethers awards shows place on talent and having a true event-changing impact. As for the more pertinent question of whether Murphy can help promote the telecast and boost tune-in, we won’t know for sure until the ratings come in — along with the inevitable braying from a host of Monday-morning quarterbacks.
Data provided by:Nielsen Media Research (Preliminary Results)