Now that the nominees for the 96th Academy Awards have been announced, network executives will be keeping their fingers crossed for the main event: Oscars night, on March 10. How many people will tune in for one of Hollywood’s biggest nights out?
The nominations are likely to draw more attention and commentary than usual, primarily because Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie, the director and a star respectively of Barbie, the year’s top-grossing film, were snubbed in the best director and best actress categories. Ironically, that might also be the reason fewer people tune in to the show.
More than ratings are at stake. The network, owned by Walt Disney Co, is expected to clear its ad inventory for the glamor event. Yet it dropped prices to sell out last year’s show, and advertisers might be watching the viewership numbers of other awards shows to decide how to apportion their spending.
Illustration: Mountain People
Even before the nominations were announced, the portents for the Oscars were mixed, at best. The Golden Globes show earlier this month drew 9.4 million TV viewers, up 50 percent from last year, but it was still the fourth-worst of all time. Last week, the Emmy Awards were watched by just 4.3 million people, the lowest number ever, despite heightened expectations around box-office blockbusters such as Barbie and Oppenheimer.
This bodes ill for the Academy Awards. Last year’s Oscar night brought in 18.7 million viewers, a 12 percent increase, but still among the lowest numbers ever. It was telling that much of the media coverage ahead of the show had centered not on the likely winners, but around the most dramatic moment of the previous edition when Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock for having made a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Although Jimmy Kimmel, last year’s host, made several jokes about the slap, nobody felt compelled to give him one. With Kimmel, not exactly renowned for edgy humor, returning as master of ceremonies, there is little likelihood of offense being given or taken this time.
Kimmel, for one, does not seem to be holding out much hope for another spike in viewership.
“Network television ratings are headed downhill,” he told USA Today. “There’s nothing I or anyone could do about it, and there will be an occasional exception to the rule, but it’s not the sort of thing that I put a whole lot of thought into, really.”
Ignoring the ratings is not a luxury available to ABC or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out the Oscars. Over the years, the academy has tried to arrest the general decline in interest by doubling the number of finalists for the top award and flirting with the idea of adding an Oscar specifically for popular films. These efforts were in response to the growing criticism that the awards were being cornered by high-brow films that had limited audience appeal. By including more blockbusters in the mix for awards, the academy hoped more people would tune in.
However, it has not worked.
Except for the odd spike in TV viewership, audiences have been drifting away — to TikTok, YouTube and other online options. Within 24 hours of Smith’s slap, it was watched more than 50 million times on YouTube, smashing the single-day record; only 16.7 million watched the show live on ABC, the second-lowest of all time.
The network has tried to prop up ratings with more skits and musical numbers. It has tinkered with the format — two hosts, multiple hosts and even, for a while, no hosts.
In its latest effort to goose the ratings, ABC has announced that this year’s show is to start at 7pm Eastern Standard Time, an hour earlier than usual. This is an attempt to break the pattern of viewership declining sharply during the final hour of the show. Although the Oscars are usually scheduled for three-and-a-half hours, the show has frequently run longer. This time, the network is hoping it would end before bedtime for east coast viewers.
Yet even with disciplined timekeeping, it is hard to imagine that audiences, now used to entertainment delivered on TikTok videos, would have the stamina for a three-and-half-hour extravaganza.
Can the decline be halted? I am skeptical there would ever be a return to the golden days of the 1990s and 2000s, when audiences in excess of 40 million were the norm. The 1998 peak of 55.25 million viewers seems a wild fantasy.
However, the academy and ABC might want to try more drastic measures than they have attempted thus far: A tight show of no more than 90 minutes. Or they could take a leaf out of Hollywood’s own playbook and try a little stunt casting. Others have tried it. In response to falling ratings for its Olympics coverage, NBC recruited rapper Snoop Dogg and comedian Kevin Hart as special commentators. The network is bringing Snoop Dogg back as a “special correspondent” covering the Olympics in Paris this summer.
Perhaps ABC could go the other way and have famous athletes hand out Oscars? Simone Biles as host: I would watch that.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering culture. Previously, he covered foreign affairs.
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