I would really like to meet the TV viewer who wasn’t planning to watch Sunday’s Oscars telecast on ABC but changed their mind when they learned skateboarder Tony Hawk, surfer Kelly Slater and snowboarder Shaun White would be presenting a montage about James Bond.
ABC executives and the show’s producers seem to think this person exists. After a precipitous drop in viewership last year (which followed several other precipitous drops in viewership), this year’s show aimed to appeal to a supposedly broader audience. To attempt to achieve this, the producers made several widely pilloried changes, including “fan favorite” segments determined by online voting and the jettisoning of eight categories — one-third of the awards — from the live broadcast. In the end, the fan-favorite elements didn’t accomplish much beyond inspiring widespread mockery and giving off strong “how do you do, fellow kids?” energy.
By engineering bits for some notional “average viewer” who may or may not actually watch the ceremony, as opposed to trying to keep those who really are likely to tune in, the Oscars producers seemed to forget something fundamental about the ceremony and live television: People want to watch human moments. They don’t want soulless gimmicks and stunts.
When people remember the Oscars, they remember stirring acceptance speeches, star-studded musical performances and spontaneous and unscripted moments. Sunday night brought plenty of reminders of what makes the Oscars what they are. Beyoncé gave the show a jubilant kickoff by performing her Oscar-nominated song from “King Richard” on the same tennis courts in Compton, California, where Venus and Serena Williams began their legendary careers. “West Side Story” star Ariana DeBose gave a master class in delivering a moving acceptance speech when she became the first openly queer woman of color to win Best Supporting Actress. Later, “CODA” star Troy Kotsur, who made history as the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar, similarly brought the house down and left not a dry eye anywhere. Presenting his award, Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung declared Kotsur’s win in sign language and then tenderly looked on and held his statuette so he could use both hands to sign. Who doesn’t love a moment like that?
In a strange twist of fate, the most discussed moment of Sunday night’s ceremony was also something no producer or executive could have imagined. The Will Smith/Chris Rock, uh, incident left everyone at home and in the Dolby Theatre absolutely stunned. (I feel especially bad for “Summer of Soul” director and Best Documentary Feature winner Questlove, whose heartfelt acceptance speech was yet another reminder of why the human moments are what make the Oscars — if only we hadn’t been distracted by what happened just before his win.) The Incident left everyone frantically wondering whether Smith would address it in his subsequent Best Actor speech. (He did.)
Whether they’re heartwarming or shocking, these moments are why people watch not only the Oscars, but live TV events in general. We’re not here for the tired gimmicks or bloated montages or contrived presenter pairings. The moments that endure are the ones that producers can’t just cook up from analyzing data or guessing at what people want. That’s the thrill of live television.
Let’s be clear about all of this. At their core, the decisions behind “shaking up” the show are financial, not artistic or creative. For years, the Oscar ceremony’s TV ratings have been sinking, leaving at stake the Academy’s hefty contract with ABC and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising.
Every year, there’s hand-wringing about whether the show is too long, whether it needs a host, whether the Academy should nominate more box-office hits, etc. — all in the name of “rescuing” the ratings. At the same time, many fans of the Oscars and the movies, who will likely watch no matter what, would probably prefer that the show’s organizers give up catering to the lowest common denominator. When they try to please the widest possible audience, they end up pleasing no one.
In addition, the decisions behind the show seem incongruous with what’s happening with the awards themselves. As Justin Chang wrote for the Los Angeles Times last week, the Academy keeps nominating more inventive and groundbreaking movies, thanks in part to its ongoing efforts to increase the diversity of its membership. But by making all these changes to the show to reach casual viewers, it comes across as though the Academy is embarrassed by the nominated films.
The decision to cut eight awards from the prime-time broadcast and present them an hour before, then air snippets of the winners’ speeches, underscores that sense of embarrassment. It’s hard to imagine the show trying this approach again: Numerous Academy members and industry veterans have spoken out against it. It’s deeply insulting to the nominees, winners and members of those branches of the Academy. It’s also a missed opportunity to introduce people to the many component parts that go into making a movie.
On a purely aesthetic level, the eight truncated awards were inelegantly shoehorned into Sunday’s show, further driving home the insulting idea that they are secondary to the starrier awards. It’s also a miscalculation of what viewers might want. Some of the speeches seemed like they could have been memorable, if only they weren’t so chopped up. For example, Riz Ahmed won an Oscar — and all we saw were a few seconds of his speech.
Ultimately, all that trimming and reworking didn’t even serve its intended purpose. The show still clocked in at three hours and 40 minutes, just as long as it would have otherwise been.
What will it take for ABC and the Academy to accept that chasing ratings is an impractical and misguided goal? (Probably a huge economic shift, given the money involved.) Pretty much every live TV event is undergoing a perennial ratings crisis — see also: the Olympics and the Grammys, just to name a few of the most recent examples. For years now, we’ve been consuming TV fundamentally differently than we did in, say, 1998, when a record 55 million people watched the box-office juggernaut “Titanic” win Best Picture. The huge ratings are long gone. People don’t watch live TV as much anymore. Someone who’s only casually interested in the Oscars can scroll through Twitter and read about it on their phones. It doesn’t seem like cutting a third of the awards, trying to find some broadly appealing presenters, or creating, say, a Best Popular Film category (which the Academy announced and then quickly shelved in 2018) will tip the scales for a viewer who’s on the fence about watching.
Year after year, ABC and the Oscars producers have desperately tried to chase after viewers who may not be tuning in at all. They’d be better off making a show that people who do care will actually want to watch, not one that felt like it was mass-engineered by an algorithm.