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Oscars 2021: looming TV ratings disaster could be calamitous for Academy | Oscars 2021

As its big night approaches, the Academy is staring disaster in the face. As well as the fact that the Oscars’ TV ratings have been declining for years, the catastrophic audience figures for the Golden Globes last month disappointing viewer numbers for the Baftas last Sunday demonstrated that the Covid-era awards show has proved a dramatic turn-off. The televised Academy Awards show, due to air on 25 April, is likely to attract its smallest audience ever which could have a disastrous effect on the Oscars’ future.

Steven Gaydos, executive vice-president of content for film industry magazine Variety, says “there is ample reason for concern … Before Covid hit the audience numbers were declining rapidly, year on year, for all awards shows. The Academy is essentially funded by the TV show, and they are about to open a big expensive museum. They have taken on a half-billion-dollar enterprise at a time when their primary source of income is declining. There could be an iceberg ahead for the Academy.”

The success of the TV show is vital to its organisers Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas), which receives around $75m per year from TV network ABC, on a contract that will last until 2028. ABC itself makes large sums from advertising slots during the show – $129m on the 2020 edition – meaning that revenue generation remains strong. But last year’s audience figures were the lowest ever, at 23.9m in the US, imperilling ABC’s ability to make a profit on the show.

A combination of factors appears to be at play. The pandemic has badly disrupted the normal operations of the film industry, with many prestige films delayed or dropped on to streaming services with little fanfare. It has long been recognised that nominations for blockbuster films – such as Lord of the Rings or Avatar – deliver bigger audiences to the Oscars TV show, and these types of film are this year conspicuous by their absence. Further, the telecast itself has struggled to retain audience approval, with frustrations over its lengthy running time, choice of hosts (if any) and the quality of the spectacle on offer. The problems have been compounded by long-running complaints over the lack of diversity in nominees and winners, triggered in 2015 by the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag campaign.

The show’s producers have been tinkering with the format for some time in an attempt to shore up audience figures. Plans to trim the running time – by relegating less popular categories to commercial breaks and dropping some of the performances of nominated songs – were greeted with dismay, while suggested introductions such as adding a “best popular film” category and bringing in more celebrity presenters also caused an outcry.

Disaster artists … James Franco and Anne Hathaway presenting in 2011.
Disaster artists … James Franco and Anne Hathaway presenting in 2011. Photograph: A.M.P.A.S./ABC via Getty Images

The identity of the host has also become a hot potato after James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s notorious stint in 2011 and the departure of Kevin Hart before the 2019 ceremony, after past homophobic comments on social media were spotlighted. Since then, no official host has been used.

Jeremy Kay, Americas editor of Screen International magazine, believes the issue is a red herring: “I personally don’t think a host makes much impact. It’s more about whether the show as a whole entertains and feels fresh. The Oscars remain meaningful to the film industry, but to succeed as a mainstream TV special you’ve got to entertain.”

Only a few details have emerged of what is being planned for the 2021 show. In December, the Ocean’s Eleven director Steven Soderbergh was hired as one of the producers, a high profile statement of intent to “re-envision” the telecast. Having seen the technical difficulties that plagued the Golden Globes, Soderbergh and his fellow producers initially planned a “Zoom-free” event, taking place at two different venues in Los Angeles. However, they were forced to backtrack as it became clear that a significant number of nominees based outside the US would be prevented from attending due to Covid travel regulations. This led to the establishment of “hubs” in London and Paris to allow remote participation.

The main contenders for prizes in 2021 include Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s study of retirees living a precarious existence in the wake of the 2008 financial crash; Promising Young Woman, an acclaimed rape-revenge comedy-drama starring Carey Mulligan; Minari, an Arkansas-set drama about a Korean-American family attempting to run a farm; and The Father, in which Anthony Hopkins plays an elderly man with dementia.

Kay says: “The Covid delays have enabled smaller movies to go farther than they might have done had there been the usual barrage of studio heavyweights. It’s not been a banner year, but the quality across the board has been high. These movies, the film-makers behind them and the stories they tell have had more visibility than they might have expected in any other year, and we’re all the better for it.”

Gaydos, though, suggests that there may be fundamental problems with the way the Academy Awards connect with contemporary Hollywood films and their audiences. “For some time the movies nominated for best picture represent only a tiny fraction of the tickets sold – there is chasm between the Oscars and the moviegoing public. The Marvel and DC films are hardly ever up for best picture, or Star Wars, while the Pixar moves are relegated to the animated category, so the pictures that constitute 90% of moviegoing just aren’t there.”

“At the point that the Oscars become all spinach and no dessert, they put themselves up quite a tree.”

The decline of what he calls “movie-star culture” also plays a part. “Most franchise films are not really star-driven,” Gaydos says. “Part of the awards show fun is seeing these stars being themselves – nervous, emotional, passionate about their work – and you are effectively spend an evening with some very beautiful people at an important night in their lives. The more that is diminished the less of an event the Oscars is. If the franchise is the star, it doesn’t make you want to tune into an awards show.”

“I love the Academy, I love movies, I love the Oscars, so this current concern gives me a lot of heartache.”

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