I was probably a teenager when I first heard someone call the Oscars “our Super Bowl” — “our,” in that particular instance, meaning “drama kids,” the all-encompassing nickname for those of us who took Drama class, did school plays and musicals, probably sang in choir, and maybe even participated in forensics tournaments. (You had them at your school too, I’m sure. Maybe you were one.) We were also typically not, to put it politely, the kinds of kids who got together to watch the Super Bowl. But when we met up (usually at our drama teacher’s house) on our big night, a month or so later, the spirit and appeal was the same: we were there for the spectacle, we were there to watch it as it happened, we were there to meet it with cheers and snark, we were there to eat a lot of food that was bad for us. It was a glitzy, fun, and — as the host (usually Billy Crystal) never tired of reminding us — long night.
I realize, for the purpose of the argument, that I must now date myself: this was the early 1990s. In the years since, the Super Bowl — oh, excuse me, “the big game,” as so many ads hilariously have to refer to it — has only expanded its hold on the cultural and media landscape, a full day of pre-game, game, and post-game, preceded by weeks of halftime show speculation and advertisement teasing.
But if you paid any attention at all to the run-up to this year’s Academy Awards, you might reasonably think the ceremony’s producers and network wish they didn’t have to do the damn thing at all.
To be clear, this slot on the editorial calendar — late in the week before the big night — is normally when this site, like so many others, engages in the SEO-lucrative game of “picks and predictions,” taking one last opportunity to critique the Academy’s choices (and, thus, the previous year’s films and performances), while providing some educated guesses for people filling out the ballots for their office pools and Oscar parties.
But to engage in such shrugging tradition is to act as though this is a business-as-usual year for Oscar, and good God, it’s been anything but. (Real talk: skipping predictions also saves your film editor the embarrassment of missing big on one of the more wide-open competitions in recent years.) The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, under the guidance of President John Bailey (no relation!) and under pressure from the ceremony’s longtime network ABC, have engaged in a series of slapstick stumbles and jaw-dropping own-goals — a steady stream of terrible ideas immediately reversed, suggesting that these people not only have no idea how to mount an Oscars ceremony, but have never even seen an Oscars ceremony. Dawn Hudson, the academy’s chief executive, offers this cherry quote to a New York Times story on the festival of fiascos: “If we have learned anything over the last few months it is that people feel very connected to the Oscars.” Um, gee, ya think?
None of this is intended to whitewash the considerable and numerous issues with the Academy Awards: its historic, systemic slant towards white, male filmmakers and white performers; the many, many questionable decisions of its voting body; the staggering number of regressive know-nothings still on said body, as evidenced by the annual tradition of “anonymous Oscar voter” missives; and the way that the target of that gold statue has taken over roughly half of the movie- and festival-going year. The Academy Award goes to the wrong film and performance as often as the right one (perhaps more often), and anyone who’s looked into it can give you their own, fury-inducing example.
But in a strange way, the recipients of those statues aren’t really what Oscar night is all about anyway. (It’s not even all the Academy is about, as Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh recently noted.) It’s about taking a night to celebrate cinema history, and to recognize the great — and often, not as great, but hey — new movies that have joined that legacy. It’s about star-gazing, in-joking, and fashion fawning. And it is increasingly about a television event that people are motivated to watch live, in large numbers.
That last part seems to be what’s tripping these people up. The AMPAS, and the show’s producers, have taken the bulk of the heat for the series of head-scratching bold-move-ok-never-mind decisions that have plagued this ceremony’s preparation. (Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson has a detailed rundown here.) But it’s important to place blame where due: nearly every fumbled change they’ve attempted, from the ill-fated “Best Popular Film” category to the sidelined “Best Song” performances to the shuttling off of four categories to the frigging commercials was either at the suggestion of ABC, or at the service of the network’s primary directive: get the show down to three hours.
And why, pray tell, is that running time sooooo important to the network? Part of it is ratings-driven; the numbers for the show have declined steadily, and as the Times reported, “After three hours, academy research has shown, people on the East Coast go to bed, dragging down overall viewership numbers.” (More on this later.) And part of it is shameless plugging: ABC wants the show to end by 11:00 so they can air a “special sneak preview of the highly-anticipated, high-octane dramedy, Whiskey Cavalier” immediately thereafter.
Let’s make this very plain: very few people are going to watch this show after the Oscars. Very few are going to watch it if it starts at midnight; no more or less are going to watch it if it starts at 11. What ABC is rather nakedly trying to do is take a page from the Super Bowl, which starts early enough and ends early enough for its host network to air an episode of a series afterwards, taking advantage of the laziness of people who’ve eaten too much queso to reach the remote control. But the network is roughly 30 years behind; the post-Super Bowl shows tend to be special episodes of established hits, things like This is Us, Survivor, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Voice. Back when networks premiered new shows after the Super Bowl, they ended up airing things like Grand Slam, The Good Life, and Extreme. Remember those? Exactly. In 1996, NBC finally wised up and aired a special hour-long episode of Friends, which remains the highest-rated post-Super Bowl show of all time.
ABC learning the wrong damn lesson from the Super Bowl is depressing, because that quintessential Live! Television! Event! offers so much more guidance on which way to go with Hollywood’s big night. The ceremony’s declining ratings have less to do with the length of the show (or any easy fixes therein) than it does with the general decline in live television viewership — in this age of niche choices and infinite streaming, there are just fewer viewers for even water-cooler events like the Oscars, and hitting a series of show-smashing panic buttons isn’t going to change that. Neither is slicing the show down to the bone. The longest Oscar show in recent memory — 2002’s 263-minute affair — did just fine on the ratings (41.8 million viewers), and while numbers the following year tumbled, they rolled right back up in 2004. It’s not like anyone was changing their mind about watching the Oscars this year because they heard they might not have to sit through the Cinematography award.
If anything, ABC and the AMPAS should take a page from the Super Bowl by leaning into what exactly the Oscars are: an event, and there’s no room at events for clock watchers. If ABC wants the show to end at 11, fine; just start the whole shebang earlier; as Vanity Fair’s Daniel Joyaux notes, the Super Bowl settled on a 6:30pm EST start time (as opposed to the 8:30 curtain for the Oscars) back in 1996 and haven’t wavered, as it’s a start time “both late enough to get the biggest possible TV audience, and early enough to actually retain it. Even with a four-hour show, a 6:30 start ensures that East Coast viewers can stay awake for the fourth quarter of the game, when the most decisive plays happen. And by keeping the best parts of the game airing while (most) kids are still awake, the N.F.L. also helps create its next generation of fans — ensuring the ongoing health of a key television franchise.”
With that 6:30pm start time set, then you do the Oscar red carpet pre-show at 6. Why not? Starting earlier (and ending earlier) is why they moved the Oscars from Monday to Sunday to begin with. And what the hell, while you’re at, bring back the Barbara Walters interview special at 5. And don’t just let E! have the full day of pre-show; start airing the Oscar coverage at 2 or 3. Dive deep into the nominees. Go long on clips from the old shows. (Hell, move a montage or two into there, no one will mind.) Maybe it would work; maybe it wouldn’t. But at least it would let the Oscars be the Oscars. And the way to get those ratings up is not — as the past few weeks have made increasingly clear — to grab for an audience that doesn’t care about movies, at the expense of the people who still love this big, dumb night.