In a prescient Variety column in 1978, reporter Jim Harwood talked about the blurring distinction (artistic and technical) between film and television. He wrote: “Is a ‘motion picture’ any less of an accomplishment if it’s beamed from Hollywood directly to a wall-sized screen in somebody’s home instead of being hauled in cans to something called a theatre? We suppose there will be a lot of arguments about that in the next 50 years.”
Yes, Mr. Harwood, there have indeed been many heated arguments, often centered on streaming services including Amazon and Netflix — and especially during awards time. TV and film seem separate, but, in truth, those two have been deeply connected for nearly decades.
In the 1950s, the DNA of the Academy Awards was forever changed when the ceremony debuted on TV, setting the tone for other kudocasts. And though awards season chatter sometimes centers on films, TV categories are a crucial part of Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critics Choice and all the guild ceremonies.
Surprisingly, the idea of televised awards was pioneered by the New York Film Critics organization. On Jan. 20, 1952, the group handed out awards at Hotel Algonquin ceremonies, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” as best pic. A few hours later, these presentations were re-created on CBS’ Ed Sullivan variety show, “Talk of the Town.” The following year, NBC aired an afternoon show tied to the N.Y. Film Critics rites, but interest dwindled.
Undeterred, the Academy Awards made its TV debut with its 25th event, on March 19, 1953. RCA was the sole sponsor. Oldsmobile paid $275,000 to sponsor the second Oscarcast, on March 25, 1954. On the following day, an unsigned Variety piece complained that the winners sauntered slowly down the aisle to accept their awards, making the show seem endless. For the record, the show’s running time was 90 minutes.
Accompanying that story was a piece by Daily Variety editor Joe Schoenfeld, under the headline “Ouch! Those Commercials!” He said the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences should “get assurances from future sponsors that commercials will be held to a minimum.” He added, “Oscar night should [be about] pictures being sold — not cars being oversold.” (Among the actors in Olds commercials was Betty White, the Zelig of television history.)
Schoenfeld suggested the film industry sponsor future Oscars, an idea that was seriously considered for several years.
Despite Oscar’s ratings success — the ’54 show drew an estimated 80% of TV households — other networks and awards-givers were reluctant to commit to TV kudocasts. But the 21-year-old Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. signed with NBC to have a segment of the 1964 ceremonies air on NBC’s variety program “The Andy Williams Show.”
In 1966, the Golden Globes got its own show, bouncing around various networks for several decades, returning to NBC in 1995. That also happens to be the year that the SAG Awards made its debut, also on NBC.
Meanwhile, the majority of showbiz honors — including the AFI Awards and the guilds (directors, writers, et al) — eschew TV deals. They are losing out on income, but the tradeoff is the fun atmosphere at the events, and they can maintain control of the content.
Some people still refer to the September-to-February calendar as “Oscar season,” since it climaxes with the Academy Awards. But in fact, the season is filled with awards for television. For years, TV was relegated to second-class status. But at some point in the 21st century, TV offered artists more creative freedom, and it is growing exponentially in prestige among artists, audiences and awards-givers.
So far, Oscars are still the center of the solar system that other awards shows revolve around. It’s theoretically a celebration of film, but don’t forget: In terms of choices in presenters, date-scheduling and everything else, it’s basically still a television show.