Declining ratings, a long-in-the-tooth format, and now the Kevin Hart hosting debacle. Perhaps it’s time for the Motion Picture Academy to stay in its lane, and give ABC more control of the Oscars.
The fact that the Academy holds an iron grip on the Oscar production has been a sore point for ABC over the years. According to insiders, ABC used to have more say over the show — but in the face of competitive negotiations (as other networks would still kill to televise Hollywood’s biggest night), the Alphabet network gradually ceded power.
ABC managed to negotiate a bit more sway over the show after its 2016 licensing agreement, which keeps the broadcast on the network until 2028. ABC now has some input in the Academy’s selection of Oscar producer and host — one source described it as a 50/50 partnership but ultimately, the organization has final say.
According to insiders, the fact that the Academy isn’t thinking like a TV producer may have been a factor in the Hart mess. It took the Academy a long time to nail down a host — and when Hart finally came together, it was so late in the process that his selection was rushed. (There wasn’t even time to send out an official press release before it all fell apart.) The Academy was responsible for vetting the host, and apparently saw some of Hart’s offensive tweets, but missed others. There was no deep dive into Hart’s background, which ABC execs hinted they would have done.
The Academy also grossly underestimated the public backlash, assuming that all audiences flocked to Hart’s films and comedy shows. As late as Thursday afternoon, Academy officials seemed unconcerned about the growing outrage. Surprisingly, they failed to realize that hosting the Oscars is a different animal.
And then, of course, they didn’t foresee Hart’s tone-deaf reaction, and the damage it might cause their plans. By late in the day, realizing the PR nightmare on their hands, and ABC’s unhappiness with the situation, they pushed Hart to apologize. By then, it was too late.
Hart was very outspoken in his desire to host the Oscars — but he doesn’t need the Oscars. He is one of the world’s richest comedians, as his “The Irresponsible Tour” made him more than $30 million and was the biggest comedy tour of 2018, according to Forbes.
Actually, most celebrities on the Academy wish list don’t need the Oscars. Any potential career bump is far outweighed by the backlash when, inevitably, critics complain about a bloated ceremony and ratings continue to decline.
There’s only so much a host can do to save a show, but there’s a lot they can do to add to the stink. Seth MacFarlane is still criticized for his “We Saw Your Boobs” song. David Letterman could never live down his “Oprah/Uma” joke. (And the less that can be said about James Franco and Anne Hathaway, the better.)
The Academy finds itself in a bit of a catch-22: Up-and-coming stars and comedians who would be perfect for the gig, and who would relish the career bump, aren’t high profile enough for the organization. But the stars that the Academy would love to host are either too busy, uninterested, or committed to an ABC rival. Then there’s also the issue of pay: As revealed by Jimmy Kimmel, the Oscar host is only paid $15,000.
“They could fix this in a second,” one comedian told IndieWire. “They just have to offer more money. They could have anyone they wanted. It’s a hard job. They should be paid. That old Hollywood thing of ‘You should be so lucky’ is kind of hard when everyone’s got their own opportunities. Just pay whoever you want a ton of money.”
Kimmel was likely the Academy’s best option to continue hosting the Oscars, but the Academy was spooked by ratings declines and Kimmel wasn’t interested in continuing to break his back for so little reward. Ultimately, his two ceremonies earned critical applause, and the viewership issues revolve less around host and more around putting together a more entertaining show (with nominees that people care about). Oh — and working around network erosion. (Which is impossible. Audiences are fleeing network TV. It’s just a cold, hard truth.)
Back inside ABC, one exec said he believed the time had probably run out to find another host — and given the very public Hart flameout, no one wants to be sloppy seconds and have to address what happened. More likely, this could become the first host-less Oscars since 1988.
It’s not a bad idea: That way, no one is in the crosshairs, but a wide variety of stars can entertain and keep the show moving. Open the show with a musical number by a musician, then a monologue from comedian, and keep the show moving with high-profile presenters. After all, some of the most memorable moments in Oscar history were made by presenters and winners, not the host.
Ideally, the focus should instead be on starting the host selection process early for 2020. But ultimately, that won’t be ABC’s decision to make. “I wish they’d give the Oscars back,” said one network insider.