The Oscars are a hot mess.
Responding to widespread criticism — including from big names like actors George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Kerry Washington and directors Alfonso Cuarón, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced late Friday that it was backtracking on its plan to truncate next Sunday’s ceremony by relegating several technical and craft awards to the show’s commercial breaks.
It was at least the fourth major announcement that the academy, which awards the Oscars, has been forced to roll back in recent months — all proposed as ways to revamp the show to improve declining ratings.
Facing advertising and financial pressures from its contract with ABC and its efforts to raise $388 million for a forthcoming museum, the academy has struggled to find viable solutions. Instead, it has incensed loyal viewers of the show and the film industry professionals that the ceremony honors — and delivered a series of self-owns.
Last summer the academy shelved (at least temporarily) a haphazardly created award for “achievement in popular film” widely seen as a cynical way to lure new viewers by giving box-office hits a separate category.
In December, after a prolonged search for a host, Oscar producers selected comedian Kevin Hart to take the helm. But that was short-lived, when days later, he refused to apologize for his history of homophobic jokes and tweets, announced he was stepping down as host — and then apologized anyway.
During several previous ceremonies, the academy has allowed only some performances of the nominated Best Original Songs — often selecting just the highest-profile performers or tunes. In January it announced that only two of this year’s five nominees would be featured: Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars” from “Black Panther” and Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s “Shallow,” the centerpiece of “A Star Is Born.” When a bevy of stars protested the decision, the academy reversed course and said that all five songs will be performed on Sunday.
Despite the chaos, the show must go on. Producers are reportedly putting together a revamped ceremony, which, in lieu of a host, is expected to include an opening number and A-list presenters.
In addition, The New York Times reported Sunday that “eight people from outside the world of entertainment” will present each Best Picture nominee, “speaking about what the films mean to them” — including tennis legend Serena Williams for “A Star Is Born.”
And because there will be no host delivering an opening monologue, the show’s producers said they “expect the first award to be handed out around the six- or seven-minute mark,” which could shorten the show at least slightly.
Variety reported Saturday that Bette Midler will perform “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” one of the Best Original Song nominees, from “Mary Poppins Returns.” On Monday the academy tweeted that Queen, chronicled in Best Picture nominee “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is also set to perform.
As many awards commentators and cultural observers have noted, declining Oscars ratings have been a perennial issue for the academy for at least the last decade, with almost every ceremony bringing post-mortem assessments about what to do to improve viewership.
In its report on this year’s changes, The New York Times on Sunday cited a Los Angeles Times article about the academy’s efforts to shorten “a show that usually runs longer than three hours and that has been steadily sliding in the television ratings” — from 1987.
There is not a lot of evidence to suggest that changing the show, like adjusting categories or shortening the ceremony’s length, would retain viewers or attract new ones. A decade ago, the academy expanded the Best Picture category to attempt to include more blockbuster movies, after 2008’s “The Dark Knight” did not get nominated for Best Picture. The following year’s ratings went up slightly but have mostly declined since.
Those who lament the Oscars’ falling viewership often point to the high-water mark: the 1998 ceremony, when over 55 million viewers in the U.S. tuned in to watch “Titanic” win 11 Oscars. But those ratings came from highly anomalous circumstances: a colossal box office hit and global cultural phenomenon that would be difficult to replicate in 2019.
And the sagging ratings do not necessarily have to do with the show itself. With a profusion of streaming options and the ability to follow events through social media or watch viral segments the morning after, people are not watching live television as much as before.
Yet the Oscars are still consistently the biggest live television event behind sports broadcasts such as the Super Bowl, suggesting that the perennial hand wringing over the show’s ratings may not be as big of a crisis as it has been made out to be.