Jimmy Fallon’s 2010 hosting gig helped rescue the Emmys creatively.
Without belaboring the multifaceted criticisms of Sunday’s Oscar broadcast that have filled the media, I do think there’s a point that gets lost in the shuffle.
It has now been four years since the film academy has handed the ceremony reins to a contemporary television personality and let him or her fly. The closest was in 2010, when Alec Baldwin of “30 Rock” shared the emcee emissary with Steve Martin.
This cuts to the heart of the Oscar broadcast dilemma, which is whether to play for the room in the theater or play for the crowd gathered around television sets. Not to go all Spock on you, but it seems obvious that the needs of the many should outweigh the needs of the few. Oscar ceremony-goers are a captive audience where attendance is its own reward; Oscar television viewers are not. At the end of the day, the Oscars are a television show and should be treated as such.
Instead of vascillating between the Oscars as a filmed stage show and the Oscars as a live TV show, there needs to be a commitment to the latter. And you start with a host who is at the top of his game in television.
That is not Billy Crystal, not Eddie Murphy, not Anne Hathaway or James Franco and not Hugh Jackman, the folks who have been tapped to host in the past three years.
It’s not that those people don’t have their strengths. (Even in the justifiably maligned ceremony a year ago doesn’t take away from the personal charisma of Hathaway and Franco.) The problem, however, is that the need to play to those strengths risks sending the entire production off course.
The bargain with Crystal speaks for itself — you know what you’re going to get, but it’s not going to be particularly inventive or timely. Tapping into the moment is what keeps viewers glued to their seats, but the film folk, including those with long-ago roots in TV, by and large just don’t bring it to television.
And even when you have relative TV veterans like longtime “Saturday Night Live” hosts Baldwin and Martin, you can feel that smallscreen savvy being marginalized in an attempt to make the broadcast more cinematic, or something — it can be hard to tell what the Oscars going for.
I’m tired of TV-centric hosts, from David Letterman to Ellen DeGeneres and Jon Stewart, being tossed aside because they had to cater to “the room.” Each of them was snappy in a way Crystal could have only dreamed of Sunday — I’ll even take Letterman’s “Uma-Oprah” moment over anything from this year’s event.
When you put your ceremony on television, your first duty is to the viewers. That means you get someone who is at the top of his or her game at working that audience, and that you don’t sandbag that effort by forcing elements into the show that don’t fit the personality of the host or a winning TV program. You don’t bring in someone like Stewart and then push him aside for a nostalgic clip package (outside of a classy “In Memoriam” presentation) that resembles one every Oscar viewer has seen before. You bring him in because he and his team know what works for TV, even when you, the producers, don’t.
The small bump in viewership the Oscars received this year doesn’t eliminate the shortcomings of the kudocast. It’s two years in a row now that the Oscars have basically felt dead inside, where the teams behind Jimmy Kimmel after the show, Neil Patrick Harris on the Tonys or Jimmy Fallon on the Emmys has outpaced anything Oscar night has delivered in recent memory — both in scripted and unscripted bits.
(And as you can see, this hardly means you can’t do musical numbers. But it means that if you do musical numbers, you let the people who know the modern TV audience best decide whether they’ll succeed.)
A TV-centric production isn’t guaranteed to be flawless by any stretch, but it is your best chance of producing something memorable for the right reasons.
Get Stephen Colbert or Craig Ferguson. Get Stewart or DeGeneres. Get Harris, Fallon or Kimmel. Get Tina Fey or Amy Poehler. Get the people who aren’t beholden to the film industry, who are the best in the medium you are actually broadcasting in, and let them design the show — not just parts of the show, but the show from top to bottom. Get the people who would make the award of any Oscar category a delight. Stop pretending that your tiny contemporary experience in TV supersedes what the best in the TV industry can offer.