On Wednesday, media critics were thrown into a frenzy when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors announced three key changes to upcoming ceremonies. There will now be a mandatory three-hour telecast facilitated by presenting certain selected categories during commercial breaks, an earlier air-date for the ceremony (it will be moved from February 23rd to February 9th in 2020) and a new category for Outstanding Achievement in popular film.
The announcement seemed exceptionally abrupt but subsequent reporting provided context. After the recent Oscar ceremony in March, the Disney-ABC Television Group, which signed a package in 2016 to produce the ceremony well into the new decade, had its executives meet with leaders of the Academy. Just over 26 million American viewers had tuned in for this year’s broadcast of the awards ceremony, reflecting a 19% decline from the previous year. They were concerned about these low ratings. Were the Oscars facing irrelevance? A fix was needed. Hence, Wednesday’s announcement. The candour with which it was presented suggested that the Academy was proud of its decisions. The reactions, however, did not follow suit. From critics to Oscar devotees to filmmakers, the response was less enthused. And, in their way, the decisions seemed symptomatic of larger cultural issues. In an almost craven search for popularity, the Academy seemed to be an institution unaware of what made it significant. For few things suggest irrelevance as much as questioning your own relevance.
Despite the “low” numbers, the Oscars continue to be – year after year – the most watched awards programme and continuously ranks among the year’s top ten programmes. A consideration of the dwindling numbers for the Oscars without some thought for the dwindling numbers for the traditional TV landscape reflects a thoughtlessness that’s baffling. The Oscars record higher numbers than the performance-heavy Grammy Awards; more than the party atmosphere of the Golden Globes; more than the star-laden Emmy Awards (which never televises a technical award); and even more than the ones which cater solely for popularity, like the MTV Movie Awards or the People’s Choice Awards.
The American television landscape has changed since the first televised ceremony in 1953. There are more options for audiences as online viewing and streaming have cut into the revenue of “traditional” TV and the global audience has become even more significant. With the popularity of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, the scores of other options for audiences on network and cable television and the possibility of DVRing and streaming network shows online, TV ratings have mutated over the years. Even the Superbowl, America’s top TV event, is experiencing dwindling numbers. It’s the nature of the television landscape, which makes the concerns of the ABC executives seem misguided at best.
The plot thickens, of course, when one considers that Disney-ABC produces a number of “popular” blockbusters that stand to benefit from a popular category. The speculation as to their conflict of interest has been rampant, while recognising the way a popular film category insults both popular films by ‘ghettoising’ their work. This new category would suggest nominees as not good enough to be the real Best Picture but merely runners-up. Conversely, it serves to insult the eventual Best Picture winner by suggesting its own lack of popularity. What does popularity even mean? And that’s where the international perspective seems so key. For, how much of popularity is borne out of access?
The least problematic choice for many critics is the move to early February for the ceremony, and it’s here I think international audiences, critics and movie lovers stand to benefit least. Despite its American focus, the idea of the Oscars has been a beacon for filmmakers and lovers the world over. There’s something aspirational about the ceremony and even for those who don’t watch movies regularly, being familiar with the Oscar nominees and using the nominees as a form of basic film knowledge persists. Seven of the nine 2017 Best Picture nominees opened in Guyana before the March ceremony. Four of them, including the Best Picture winner, opened in the week preceding the Oscar ceremony at the very end of February. Amidst the other broader, more lacerating changes, the change of the date might seem incidental and yet it emphasises the way that the Governors have myopically turned away from the people who they should be courting. Think of the numbers if the Oscars were streamed internationally online. But like for so many institutions of the west, the international market seems an afterthought at best.
Popular films often become popular by virtue of the access given to them. More people have heard about last year’s Jumanji than Lady Bird by virtue of the former opening everywhere, not because of an implicit lack of quality in the latter.
An earlier Oscar night promises a ceremony where even less films have been screened for international audiences, and even for American audiences who do not live in metropolitan cities where everything opens. The film landscape has changed. There are exponentially more movies being made today than in the eighties. Popular films already have the prize of popularity, do they need an award too? And will the prospective audience who have never watched the Oscars tune in for one category?
Who knows? The recent announcement reveals an institution chasing the past rather than embracing the future. And yet the move seems emblematic of a world where persons are constantly misunderstanding the things they claim to value. Just like the wave of populism sweeping across the world in some uncomfortable ways, the Academy’s desire for the idealistically popular rings hollow.