FADE IN: The 2022 Academy Awards: Will Shortening The Ceremony Garner Big Numbers?

Stroudsburg Herald

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By Nick Sergi

Aside from the Super Bowl, the annual Academy Awards ceremony has traditionally been the highest-rated televised event throughout the year. Phrase that how you want: it consistently has the highest ratings of any show other than the "Big Game," but if you don't know how the Neilsen rating system works, look at the raw numbers: the Oscars had its biggest night in 1998 when Titanic was in the running for best picture, and over 55 million viewers watched that film take the best picture, Oscar. There won't be any bar graphs or line charts in this article, but since 1998, they usually have found their stride pulling in over 30 million viewers, and 2014 was the last time the viewership numbers topped 40 million. It has no doubt been unnerving to know that viewership numbers in recent years have fallen to all-time lows. The folks behind the scenes have been tweaking the show to bolster those numbers these last few years. Some of these choices have been somewhat baffling and have not helped. This year's ceremony will be broadcast live on March 27.

Setting a bit of context, things have indeed been different for the Oscars. The ceremony had no host for the last few years (Jimmy Kimmel was the last person to host the show for both the 2017 and 2018 ceremonies). In 2019, when Kevin Hart, the designated emcee, backed out just days before the event because of the resurfacing of tweets that were homophobic, the Academy ran the ceremony without a host. Instead, the program continued with several presenters moving swiftly from one category to the next. In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, the producers experimented a bit and held the event at the historic Union Station, a seemingly odd change of venue. The ceremony, though, ran smoothly.

Did it? I did not watch the 2021 Oscar ceremony. Neither did a lot of people. The once-massive telecast of the Academy Awards, which could reliably garner upwards of 30 million viewers (at least), hit its all-time low with less than ten million viewers. Sure, low numbers were expected because fewer movies had come out the previous (qualifying) year, and with various nationwide pandemic lockdowns, less people could even get out to see movies. That's why the producers felt they could experiment with the ceremony a bit, placing it in a different venue and scaling down the presentation. The real concern for Hollywood is that there has been a lack of interest in the Academy Awards in recent years, and all one has to do is imagine the line graph showing the viewership numbers for the last decade and imagine that line taking a visible dip in the last few years.

What has been happening? Back in 2010, the producers increased the number of nominees from five to ten. This was likely a response to a perceived snub of the popular and well-made film, The Dark Knight, which failed to garner a nomination the previous year. This added to the perception that movies the Academy of Arts and Sciences were interested in celebrating were just small. These artsy films might be seen as pretentious by your average moviegoer. Perhaps increasing the number of nominations meant some excellent films, viewed and enjoyed by more people, would be recognized. Since then, the producers have stipulated that there may be more than five Best Picture nominees, and there may be as many as ten. This practice didn't stop some strange films from winning the coveted best picture award; Birdman, released in 2014, was an odd piece of filmmaking to the majority of audiences. One could argue that the Oscars were and continue to be a long way from its glory days, when big films like Titanic, Dances with Wolves, and Return of the King, had won that Best Picture award.

It's clear that this year the producers have been scrambling to find ways to win back the goodwill of the audience and draw attention back to the telecast. There will, once again, be hosts (Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes) this year, and the producers have made some controversial decisions to reduce the length of the ceremony. Those on the East Coast will no longer have to stay up late on a work night to see the most coveted awards. To reduce the run-time, eight awards will be pre-taped and edited into the telecast. However, they will be given out before the live telecast begins. These include best documentary short, film editing, original score, makeup/hairstyling, production design, best animated short, best live-action short, and best sound.

These changes concern many filmmakers and film buffs: will these categories get the short shrift, considering how important they are to making a film work? Or: with people not forced to sit through three-plus hours aids in maintaining the integrity of the awards show.

The big question must be: will the viewership numbers be bolstered above twenty or thirty million this year, and will the successive years see an upward trend in people tuning in to watch? Honestly, I'm not sure that pulling awards out helps the ceremony, and I'm not sure it hurts. Is a great host alone a factor in garnering the ratings the producers seek? Oscar telecasts have garnered huge numbers that stretched out to three and a half hours before. In short: I believe Oscars themselves are not indeed solely responsible for how well the Oscars do. Instead, it's all about the films that are released. I remember a palpable sense of unity in the air when Titanic won best picture at the 1998 ceremony. It was such a popular film and was still playing in some theaters when the ceremony was broadcast in late March despite having been released the previous December. Titanic is just an example, as is Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, and Pulp Fiction. Yet it's not just when a "big film" wins best picture that ceremony will garner the most viewers: people will come back to the Oscars when Hollywood finds a stride and makes films that truly touch people. Whether I'm a fan of Titanic or not is not the point; they were playing audio clips of the film, and people would quiet down to listen. I always felt that a "Best Picture" should be a film that encapsulates all emotions. Make them laugh, make them cry, make them look at their own lives a bit differently. A film that does that will win the best picture because it will have the audience's pulse, so much so that people will tune in and hope to see such a film be recognized. Maybe it's less about the Oscar ceremony and more about movies themselves and their ability to feel personal.

Folow Nick Sergi Columnist | FADE IN: POP CULTURE IN MOTION

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