Before the Grammys, producer Ben Winston admitted that he was expecting a significant rating drop, based on recent history for such events during this pandemic year, a prediction that came true.
The Academy Awards organizers are resisting crystal balls, but they, too, seem resigned to the bleak possibility that, despite their best efforts and precautions, only a small number of viewers will turn in on Sunday night. It appears that the question goes beyond how low ratings will fall in this lost year to whether award shows will be able to recover from the declines seen in 2020 and 2021 if and when the world returns to some semblance of normalcy.
“We’re talking about things that we can manage, and that’s not on that list,” director Steven Soderbergh, who is one of this year’s Oscar producers, said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. He went on to say that the winners were the most important thing. “We didn’t want to cheat them out of the experience because it’s been an extremely difficult year.”
However, concentrating only on the nominees and winners ignores the fact that award shows are commercial entities to attract an audience. If they don’t, sponsorship for such events will decline, and the revenue stream that these organizations rely on will gradually dry up.
According to the New York Times, ABC, which broadcasts the Oscars, is still pursuing $2 million per 30-second spot, a double-digit decrease from last year’s advertising but almost certainly less than the drop in total viewership.
In terms of solutions, if it’s still feasible, the process of righting the ship could start with clearly defining the issues. The continued decline in award-show ratings led ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to experiment with the concept of a “famous film” category even before the pandemic, a suggestion that was nixed in 2018 after widespread criticism.
Despite the fact that the Academy has acknowledged several excellent films this century, “popular” has seldom been used to characterize them. Since “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” wrapped up the trilogy in 2004, according to Variety, no best-picture winner has cracked the top ten box office.
It seems like a long time ago that I was watching “Titanic” break box office records and win Best Picture, a happy marriage of art and industry that prompted director James Cameron to declare himself “The King of the World.” According to Nielsen numbers, approximately 55 million people in the United States tuned in that night, more than double the previous year’s record-low total of 23.6 million viewers.
Following the Golden Globes and Grammys, another decrease in the 50 percent range seems reasonable for what has historically been one of the most-watched events on the TV calendar.
Although a few blockbusters have made it into the Oscars’ nominations, such as Marvel’s “Black Panther” two years ago, the Oscars face the same problem that has plagued the Emmys and other award shows lack of diversity. A general fragmentation of the audience, and a shift to celebrating more niche-oriented fare as a result.
The pandemic year, in which five of the eight best-picture winners and other films, including favoured animation candidate “Soul,” all premiered on streaming platforms, has only amplified those dynamics. Though Hollywood is hoping for a comeback in moviegoing, there’s no guarantee that the watch-at-home genie will be put back in the bottle.
In that light, the Oscars this year can be forgiven for failing to give the winners a night to remember. However, if award shows are to have a future that harkens back to their history, they’ll have to give audiences something to remember as well as something to cheer for. And, to be honest, it’s difficult to cheer for films that you haven’t seen.