Fears grow that Oscars TV allure may be resistible

Written by New York Times | Updated: Feb 29 2012, 05:42am hrs
Brooks Barnes & Michael Cieply

The Oscar statuette stands 13 and a half inches tall and weighs eight and a half pounds.

They may want to think about shrinking it.

The Academy Awards ceremony, after all, appears to be evolving toward a materially scaled-down event. And with early Nielsen ratings for Sundays telecast essentially flatup a bit in total viewers but static among the bulls-eye audience of viewers 18 to 49Hollywood has started coming to grips with one of its biggest worries: Is this the new normal for the Oscars A diminished attraction that ranks well behind the Super Bowl and a host of playoff games, and has even been eclipsed by a surging, better-suited-to-the social-media-age Grammys

ABC estimated that this years Academy Awards broadcast, with two sparsely seen movies, The Artist and The Iron Lady, sweeping the top categories, drew about 39.3 million viewers, up 3.7% from last year. Thats about 13% of the United States population. Among adults 18 to 49, viewership was flat, at 14.9 million.

I think thats become the normal, Tom Sherak, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said of the more modest audience for the Oscars. Sherak noted that the ceremony faced competition on Sunday from TNTs presentation of the NBA All-Star game.

By comparison, the Super Bowl drew over 113 million viewers earlier this month, up 33% from its average in the 1990s. A playoff game in January drew about 58 million viewers. The Grammy Awards attracted nearly 40 million this year, powered by interest in how the show would memorialise Whitney Houston but also by efforts to turn it into more of a live concert and less of an envelope-opening ceremony.

ABC characterised the Oscar ratings as surging year to year and noted that the online audience for the event experienced tremendous year-over-year growth. Ratings information for the vast overseas audience for the telecast will trickle in over the coming days.

In the 1990s and shortly afterward, when populist movies like Forrest Gump and Gladiator won top prizes, the Oscars telecast routinely delivered about 45 million total viewers. The high point came in 1998, when the telecast delivered a peak audience of around 57.3 million.

But the flat ratings among younger viewers for this years Oscars, which came despite scrambling by the Academy to deliver an uptick, adds fuel to the widely held belief that Hollywoods awards machinery is broken. Indeed, the movie capital awakened Monday to the realisation that for yet another year it had delivered a five-month buildup to a one-night letdown.

Billy Crystal, who hosted the Oscars, suffered withering reviews for a routine that was long on pep but struck critics as antiquated. Oscars Become Badly Paced Bore-Fest read the headline in The Hollywood Reporter. Writing in The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley likened the show to an AARP pep rally. In The Washington Post, Hank Stuever wrote of the ceremony: Early on, it hit the rocks and started to list. Almost everyone drowned.

The smaller Oscars is epitomised by its biggest player, the tiny but effective Weinstein Company, which powered The Artist to five trophies on Sunday, including best picture, and The Iron Lady to two, including best actress for Meryl Streep. Harvey Weinstein, whose company also won best picture last year with The Kings Speech, aggressively campaigned for the films, trotting Uggie, the dog from The Artist, to events and insisting in radio ads that Streep deserved an Oscar partly because she hadnt won one since 1983.

Neither The Artist nor The Iron Lady has struck a nerve at the North American box office, with each so far luring about four million moviegoers to theaters. Thats as if all the people living in Los Angeles had gone to see the films, but the rest of the country did something else.

With films that most of America hasnt seen continuing to dominate the OscarsHugo, a winner of five trophies on Sunday, has been a box office dudthe Academy seems to have effectively eliminated one of the crucial measuring sticks of the past: the ability of a picture to move the masses to buy tickets. Put another way, the Academy, whose membership is smaller and artier than in decades past, does not seem as responsive to audience pressure as it does to campaign wizardry.

Sherak acknowledged that the Academys membership process has produced an older group with more esoteric tastes. Those older members, the thinking goes, are choosing movies that play to an audience that doesnt spend much time in theatres, where the big movies make their mark.

Were all living longer, so were an older organisation, Sherak said. If youre healthy, 67 is the new 55.

Sherak will not be running for a fourth term as the Academys president; his position on its governing board, a prerequisite to the presidency, has come up against a term limit. Later this year a new president will have to confront the equation that has produced a smaller Oscar enterprise.

While there has been much talk in the past of restoring energy to the Oscars by compressing the months long lead-up, any such adjustment appears likely to involve relatively minor tweaks, like moving the awards up by a week.

The big questions, in fact, will have to be answered by the Oscar voters, who will decide whether the bent toward smaller films is a permanent thing. But, cautioned Sherak, As soon as you say that, a Titanic or a Lord of the Rings or an Avatar comes along.