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The Academy Needed to Make ABC Happy, But Ratings May Shrug at a ‘Popular Movie’ Oscar

The decision to move the Oscars to early February and cap the show at three hours also comes rife with challenges.

An Oscar statue appears at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. What are TV viewers seeking from their annual Oscar fix? The same thing they want from movies: drama, comedy, sex, slapstick, glamour and romance. This year's Oscarcast airs, at 8 p.m. EST on ABCOscars-Impossible Dream, Los Angeles, USA - 2 Mar 2014

Oscars on ABC

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

For years, even decades, the Motion Picture Academy and ABC discussed how to improve the Oscar telecast. It’s what gives the Academy the vast majority of its operating budget, and changes were necessary to keep it as an immensely profitable enterprise.

So with all that time to discuss it, why was Wednesday’s announcement such a ham-fisted disaster? Rather than announce a well-articulated plan, the Academy decided to blurt something about a new “Best Popular Movie” Oscar and handing out crafts awards during commercial break with details TK. What’s a “popular movie”? Which awards won’t be live? Wouldn’t we like to know?

And perhaps the most unnecessary part of this announcement: Why would the Academy promise to cap the show at three hours, when everything else is still unknown? (One Academy insider chalked up the hasty announcement to old-fashioned corporate paranoia: “They’re always worried about secrecy when they have board meetings, so they immediately put this out there very quickly, without thinking.”)

All that aside, everyone knows something needed to be done with the Oscar telecast. This year’s ceremony averaged just 26.5 million viewers, down 19 percent from the year before, making it the lowest-watched Oscars in history.

Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor during the filming of “12 Years A Slave.”

Fox Searchlight, Jaap Buitendijk

Oscar viewership has always varied, depending on the popularity of the films being nominated. Nothing comes close to the 1998 ceremony, when 55.2 million viewers watched “Titanic” win the big prize. Since then, nearly 44 million viewers tuned in to watch “12 Years a Slave” win in 2014 — the most-watched Oscars in more than a decade. The Oscars also passed 40 million viewers in 2010 (“The Hurt Locker”) and 2013 (“Argo”), when social media had people racing to their screens to see what everyone was talking about on Facebook and Twitter.

In 2018, the nominees weren’t necessarily seen by the masses. The nine Best Picture nominees grossed a combined $638 million as of Oscar night — down from $656 million in 2017. This year’s Best Picture honoree, “The Shape of Water,” grossed around $57.4 million in domestic box office when it won, while 2017’s winner, “Moonlight,” had taken in just $22 million by the time it won.

The numbers reflect what the industry knows: Smaller movies dominate the Oscars, and when that happens fewer people watch. The same logic governs the Emmys: Popular nominees draw viewers.

However, audiences are torn in every direction for their time — including streaming TV, social media, gaming and more. And while live events are still seen as a broadcast network strength, they’ve been hit by declines. Among the other broadcasts seeing dips this year in the numbers: the Super Bowl, the Grammys, and the Winter Olympics. Why would the Academy think that the ratings solution could be as simple as adding a popcorn-movie category?

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (9360960dj)Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett"Black Panther" Film - 2018

“Black Panther”

Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

It’s a bit of a Catch-22 for the Academy: Beyond drawing an unwanted parallel with the People’s Choice Awards, awarding a “Best Popular Movie” Oscar inadvertently denigrates other awards. Then there’s the Law of Unintended Consequences: If this means that “Black Panther” is now snubbed in the Best Picture category and relegated to Best Popular Movie, that might further damage the telecast.

“Oscars are supposed to be pure prestige,” one exec noted. “They have the People’s Choice Awards [for fan favorites]. The Grammys are the Oscars of music, and have the Billboard Awards [to recognize popularity].”

Capping the show at three hours has elicited fewer outcries — although that means slicing and dicing the show, which bloated to 3 hours and 50 minutes this year. The two-hour stretch in the middle of the telecast, when many crafts awards are handed out, has long been a target for streamlining. Still, said an insider, “trying to rush the awards during commercial breaks seems insulting.”

And finally, the plan to move the Oscars up to early February, to combat awards fatigue, is also rife with problems. It puts the ceremony smack dab between the Super Bowl and the Grammy Awards — and will have to move again when the Winter Olympics returns.

“I have to give them credit for trying something,” one rival network exec said, “rather than the status quo.” Added another insider: “This is an organization that is very big, and change is sometimes hard to come by. They recognize that it’s hard. Awards shows across the board are down, so it’s always good to try something different. But this was some radical change.”

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