The Academy is sweating bullets. The 2021 Oscars will air Sunday after a string of ratings failures from other award shows. The Golden Globes in February were watched by a dismal 6.9 million people, down from 18.4 million in 2020. Last month’s Grammys were dealt a similar blow: 7.89 million viewers — less than half of what they were last year.
The Oscars, too, will inevitably fall short of its 23.6 million audience in 2020, which already represented a steep drop in viewership. When the ratings are released Monday morning, it will be a disaster. An existential crisis for the movies. Adieu, Oscar.
Don’t light the funeral pyres just yet! Some of the fallout is simply due to pandemic screen fatigue, and even film buffs don’t seem to care much about this year’s crop of nominated films — otherwise streaming services would certainly be boasting about their numbers. Still, you can’t help but feel like we’ve reached the end of an era, when all of America would sit down on Sunday night and watch a sunglasses-clad Jack Nicholson laugh from the Dolby Theatre’s front row.
We have. But, as T.S. Eliot said, “the end is just the beginning.” Plenty of old-school cultural touchstones have been at death’s door before reinventing themselves and coming out swinging. Here are some successful, tested strategies that could help the Oscars survive another day.
Cast a star
Broadway often has woeful seasons as it awaits a new hit. One tried-and-true tactic it uses to stay relevant is star casting. The person, not the show itself, becomes the event. For instance, Bette Midler returned to stage musicals for the first time in decades when she played the title role in “Hello, Dolly!” in 2017. In a 50-year-old show, the actress commanded a nearly $1,000 top ticket.
The Oscars need to follow this pattern with their hosts. The network should no longer promote its late-night shows (sorry Jimmy Kimmel), or fall back on old reliables (Billy Crystal, Chris Rock) and harebrained stunts (James Franco and Anne Hathaway). And the no-host format is practically waving the white flag of surrender.
Pick a host that audiences will tune in to see whether they care about the nominated movies or not. Beg the reclusive and hilarious Dave Chappelle to do it. Or hire Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Access is key
Just like Americans are ditching cars, consumers are cutting the cord and turning to streaming for their TV needs. The Oscars have not adapted to this reality.
The ABC show desperately needs to focus on accessibility. Every year, most publications write a story along the lines of “Here’s how to watch the Oscars tonight.” That’s because it’s more complex than you think. To watch the broadcast on the website or the ABC app, you need to plug in your cable password — or pay to watch it via pricey YouTube TV or Hulu + Live TV subscriptions.
If I were the Oscars producers, I would be courting a popular streaming service — Netflix, Hulu, Amazon — for broadcasting rights, just like the NFL recently did with the Amazon. Netflix currently has 208 million subscribers worldwide. Imagine if just 20 percent watched the Oscars.
Embrace the old
You might listen to most of your music on your phone these days, but you can still buy brand-new records. Taylor Swift’s “Evermore” is available as an LP right this very moment — and people (most likely younger than 60) are buying it. Popular music embracing a retro format offers a good lesson that sometimes the key to sticking around is playing to a devoted fanbase — music-lovers in this case — rather than trying to please everybody. With its relentless emphasis on the new, the show forgets that, contrary to popular logic, many young people actually enjoy the quality of old things.
In 2003, Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland introduced a special celebration for the 75th anniversary of the ceremony: 58 legendary past Oscar winners sat in rows onstage, and their names were called, one by one. Watch it, if you haven’t — the list is amazing. Seeing Julie Andrews, Sean Connery and Rita Moreno sharing the stage with Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Meryl Streep was an inspiring, nostalgic, gimmick-free moment of magic.
One YouTube commenter said: “I would like to see the Oscars do this again sometime soon,” which was liked by 843 people. The Oscars should embrace the past more, not just the new and the hot.
Cut the length
Last year’s Oscars were 3.5 hours long. In that same time frame, a person could fly from JFK to Cancun, and be much happier at their end destination. Late-night TV, a bedraggled format if there ever was one, realized the power of brevity years ago.
In the aughts, many Americans, for better or worse, got their news from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” — a program that was a brisk 30 minutes. In 2019, veteran host Conan O’Brien decided to reduce his program to 30 minutes, too. It’s just enough time to give us a few laughs and an interview.
The usual suspects will be angry at me, but moving some technical categories — editing, sound, cinematography — off the broadcast, or to a different ceremony altogether, could get the evening down to a more humane 2.5 hours.
Have you ever heard anybody say, “I hate Dolly Parton”? I’d wager not. The busty blond country singer has been, for decades, one of the few things Americans can agree on.
Beyond her immense talent, charm and good humor, there’s a big reason for this: She never jumps into the political fray.
But most celebrities simply cannot fathom that audiences don’t want to hear their opinions — We are famous! We are the anointed ones! Bow down to your Hollywood gods! — and so, Robert De Niro keeps spewing his oft-crude beliefs on the year’s most trivial night.
Viewers hate this. The Oscars’ producers can’t do much about it (in my dreams, they would give fines), but stars need to hear this: Every time you rant and rave about the White House, or the Senate, or the war, somebody is turning off the Oscars who will never turn them on again.