His client was having a great night. He should have been thrilled. But on the last Sunday night in April, as this year’s dire Oscar ceremony continued to deflate, a top Hollywood representative texted me about the “beyond terrible” show and fretted, “The entire country has tuned out.”
Later, as the ceremony entered an even worse final act that included a flop-sweat comedy bit and a bungled best-actor reveal, I got another text from him: “This could kill the Oscars. It’s that bad.”
Reviews of the show proved nearly as scathing, and the ratings released the next day were grim: The Oscars had plunged more than 50 percent from the previous year, drawing just under 10 million people, the lowest number on record since those figures had been tabulated.
I’ve thought about that ratings drop (and those doom-laden texts) quite a bit in the months since, as a new awards season has begun. There is a lot of excitement in Hollywood right now, as premieres and award shows can be held in person again and the movies vying for awards feel much bigger. But behind people’s unmasked smiles, I detect some anxiety, as though there’s a question that everybody is still too nervous to pose: What if all of this is leading up to an Oscars that nobody will watch?
I think it helps that the show has returned to a guaranteed 10 best-picture nominees, which should ensure that a broader cross-section of movies gets nominated, just as the academy’s laudable drives to diversify its membership ought to result in a slate of nominees that feels less out of touch. But all of those efforts could seem fruitless if the show’s audience shrinks so starkly once again. After the last ceremony tanked the Oscars’ reputation and ratings, here are four things the academy should do to fix things before next year’s show.
Hire a host.
The last three Oscar ceremonies have gone without an M.C., which continues to feel like a missed opportunity. The right host can help drive viewers to the show and provide memorable, viral moments: Part of the reason the Golden Globes used to gain on the Oscars is that they could promote buzzy hosts like Ricky Gervais and the ace duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
Hosting the Academy Awards used to be one of Hollywood’s most prestigious gigs, but the show often fumbled that privilege over the last decade: There was the James Franco-Anne Hathaway debacle (which might have worked with sharper writing and a more engaged partner for Hathaway), smarmy turns from Seth MacFarlane and Neil Patrick Harris, and two back-to-back stints from a disinterested Jimmy Kimmel. Ever since 2018, when Kevin Hart stepped down from the show after refusing to apologize for anti-gay jokes, the ceremony has decided to dispense with a host altogether.
But if the Oscars are so eager to cram blockbuster content into a show that often celebrates small indie movies, why not invite some hosts from that tentpole realm? I’d rather watch Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt host the Oscars than star in something like “Jungle Cruise,” and it’s fun to imagine what a quick-witted Marvel duo like Paul Rudd and Simu Liu could do, too. I fear the Oscars might never restore the host position now that the show runs shorter without one. But on that note …
Understand that shorter doesn’t mean better.
In their never-ending quest to trim the Oscars to a manageable length, ABC and the academy would do well to remember one thing: It’s not about how much time the show takes, it’s about how well the show uses that time. Why not lean into the Oscars’ mammoth reputation and fill every nook and cranny with something exciting? It still boggles my mind that there isn’t a slate of movie trailers on par with the Super Bowl: Imagine how many people would tune in if the commercial breaks promised a first look at the “Black Panther” sequel, just for starters.
When the show is pared down too ruthlessly, it leaves less room for the real human moments that we tune in for. Those moments don’t have to come solely from the acceptance speeches, either: I often think fondly of the 2009 show, hosted by Hugh Jackman, which made room for five former winners to present each of the acting categories. It was a lovely way to pay homage to Oscar history, and all the nominees were memorably moved by the tribute. That ceremony ran about 11 minutes longer than the one that aired this past April, but I’ll take those 11 minutes over nearly anything the shorter show had to offer.
Restore the clips and performances.
One of the reasons this year’s Oscar show felt so deadly dull is that nearly all the movie clips were excised from the broadcast. For casual viewers who tune into the Oscars without seeing most of the nominees, those clips create a rooting interest: Based on the glimpses of performances and craft, you can make your own armchair guess of who’ll win. And when I watched the show as a child, the movie clips offered a sneak preview of worlds, lives and people previously unknown to me. They’re essential.
This year’s ceremony also punted the best-song performances to the preshow, which deprived the main event of several high-energy moments. (Can you imagine if that scorching “Shallow” duet from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper had been booted to the preshow two years ago?) With original songs in the mix this year from Beyoncé and Billie Eilish, the Oscars would be foolish not to milk those performances for everything they’re worth. And if all those clips and performances make the show run too long, just cut the shorts already!
Make peace with the Oscars’ new reality.
With all that said, there’s only so much the Oscars can do to halt their linear-ratings slide. People simply consume media differently these days, and many households and younger audiences have cut the cord entirely, consuming all of their TV shows on streaming services.
But the essential pull of the Oscars still remains. It’s the only awards show that generates this much chatter, and the narratives that unspool because of the show — from boundary-shattering victories like the best-picture winner “Parasite” to a cultural movement like #OscarsSoWhite — continue to ripple outward through our culture. I saw it last year, when the “Minari” star Steven Yeun became the first Asian American nominated for best actor, and when the “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color to win best director: Even though their films were hardly blockbusters, their achievements went incredibly viral on social media.
That sort of engagement proves that there’s still a massive audience out there, albeit one that tunes in ever more frequently via Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. If the academy wants to lure all of those eyeballs to the actual broadcast, then it should make a more compelling play for their attention. Despite recent missteps, people haven’t lost interest in the idea of the Oscars. It’s the show itself that’s in need of a tuneup.