MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: The Host & The Show

I feel like I have written and said this a million times. Being critical about awards is a thankless task. People are either invested in it personally or honored to be participating even if they are being embraced by peripheral charlatans or are just happy about the whole thing. Moreover, the whole thing is thick with talented people and wonderful, well-intentioned efforts.

The great thing about this myopia in years gone by is that at the center you had institutions that were immovable objects. There was plenty of complaining back in the Bruce Davis era (1989-2011). But you knew that no matter what the whether, this politburo would keep pushing forward in a very clear, very considered way.

Since then… not so much.

The current administration of the Academy, led by Dawn Hudson, seems to be single-task focused, with a profound lack of understanding about the value of the institution. It’s a thousand cuts, not a beheading. Hudson is too shrewd a politician for that. She manages up elegantly.

I can’t put everything on Ms. Hudson. She was hired to run an institution that was and is dysfunctional in both its arrogance and its insecurities about its place on the power map. She came from an organization that worked hard to establish a beachhead as a second tier power player (to Hollywood) with the cachet of a TV presence that had (and has) a wildly swinging lever of status.

As a result, Hudson has brought the “let’s just do it and we’ll worry about how it played later” attitude of a young organization to America’s most significant and historic film organization. She tore out the politburo, but the replacement didn’t take, with a lot of turnover in what should have been stable positions. She took on the museum assignment with gusto and aggression and a fearlessness about working with longstanding associates (of hers, not the Academy’s) and moved the ball forward mightily… while securing the facade of the museum long before its conceptual foundations, including a long wait and iffy choice for its top management, and expanding the budget well beyond expectations. And she has handled the evolution of the membership of the Academy as a publicity exercise, acting on choices that are of value, but are simply not as publicized.

The crown jewel of the Academy is The Oscars. All the good work the Academy does, which is rarely discussed, but of legitimate importance, is funded by the award show. And though the organization was not begun as an awards event, Oscar has become the heart of the AMPAS. It is the public image of the group and the prestige of the award that, inappropriately, defines the prestige of the group.

If you look at the numbers, you will see that the show has been in what is likely an unstoppable decline in this last decade. But what is the chicken and what is the egg? The Academy Awards are still the top non-NFL playoff/Super Bowl show in America. This year, the February ratings were uniquely overshadowed by the elections and the World Series finale. But that would have been true (except for the World Series game) even if the numbers were at a high for the last decade.

Broadly, the show does between 37 million and 44 million U.S. viewers. What determines the high and low points on these ratings? Unclear. Except, Ellen DeGeneres does draw. She did two of the four highest-rated shows in the last decade. The #1 of this last decade was in the 12 Years A Slave year, which was Zadan & Meron’s second year, had Ellen, and had Gravity seemingly driving eyeballs.

The other over-40m viewer hosts of this last decade were Martin & Baldwin (Avatar vs The Hurt Locker) and Seth MacFarlane (Argo won… no giant movie competing).

It’s hard to play The Host Game. Steve Martin hosted the second lowest-rated Oscars of the last 20 years… and two that had much better numbers. Jon Stewart’s second go at Oscar was the lowest rated of the last 20. Hugh Jackman’s year was one of the best reviewed Oscar shows… and one of the lowest rated (8th best of 10 this decade). Chris Rock did a number in 2005 that was the best since then except for the Ellen show of 2014… but then his show died last year.

I tend to believe that only Billy Crystal has been a significant factor in ratings for Oscar, because of his consistency as host. I don’t believe the host creates the rating. Every measure you could try to use gets blurry pretty fast.

Hi 30s/Low 40s seems to be the new normal for Oscar ratings. A blockbuster that has a chance of winning seems to draw. Outside of that, just put on the best show that you can and the ratings will sort themselves out. No producer or host can control them in any given year.

Oscar Ratings 1997 - 2016 651

Would it help if there was consistency from The Academy in its choices? Yes. History shows us that finding a strong host and sticking with her or him and building a TV audience the way TV audiences are built is the best shot at getting a handle on improve ratings.

Also, I would suggest that defining the show is critical. Take a big step back, away from the numbers and the reviews and the hype and ask, “What is this show about?”

Wait… I haven’t mentioned this year’s host yet…

What’s wrong with Jimmy Kimmel?

Everything. And nothing.

He is not a movie guy… Even if he has the only 11:30 show in Los Angeles.

He is not a classy guy… Even if he cleans up well in a tuxedo.

He is ABC’s guy… which denigrates the awards even if he is excellent as a host.

He just hosted the Emmys… which makes him second hand goods for the #1 award show in the world.

Then again…

Ellen DeGeneres isn’t a movie person. And she isn’t nose-in-the-air, but she isn’t a fart joker either. She killed it, in terms of ratings.

Then again…

Neil Patrick Harris is a great host. He is not a movie person, really. He goes for high-end lowbrow humor. He hosted every other show within a couple years of the Oscars. His numbers weren’t good and the show was much disliked.

Then again…

Seth MacFarlane’s show was widely despised. He went to the bottom of the comedy barrel, had hosted nothing big before and isn’t really a movie person… but his numbers were pretty damned good.

So… let’s pretend I didn’t even bring up Kimmel. Let’s go back to the bigger question.

“What is this show about?”

Part of me doesn’t want to answer this question, even for myself. I am not a member of the Academy, will not likely be one in my lifetime, and the organization needs to decide for itself what it means to be.

What I do want to express, however, is that whatever the Academy wants to be, it should be proud and open about the choice. And I don’t think the Academy is that about much of anything these days.

They did an end-run around admission rules to invite 683 new members, about half of whom would not have been seriously considered under normal circumstances. And you know… that is 100% okay with me… IF they present it as such. They might say something like, “We found that we could beef up out international position, which was very weak, and we desperately needed to shore up the percentage of women in the group, so we bent over backwards to find more than 300 new female members who would otherwise be unlikely invitees at this time and we found a lot of highly valued international members. Unfortunately, we failed to be able to find a significant number of American-based black, Latino, or Asian members of the industry to invite at this time. And this is because there is a longstanding bias in the industry of which our group is meant to be the cream of the crop. We will work diligently to push the industry to more inclusiveness, though because of the current nature of the industry, we are not sure we can reach promised 2020 goals.” Simple. Clear. Honest.

Is there a chance that Jimmy Kimmel ended up as host this year just because the process worked out that way? There is a chance. I’d put it at about 1.5%. It is much more likely that the Academy didn’t sign producers until very late in the process knowing full well that ABC required Kimmel to host this year (and likely for years to come). Did this fact keep other producers from accepting in the summer or early fall? Possibly.

Given the Academy’s management of the media, the delay seems most likely intended to push back on the conversation about the conditions of the early ABC renewal (which only happened to secure building loans for the over-budget museum). Now, coming together in December, it looks like “well, we were up against it” instead of “ABC shoved him down our golden throat.”

But putting what seems likely to be manipulation aside… what about Jimmy? Is this who the Academy sees as a top-of-the-line representative of the organization? Ricky Gervais slagging everyone off on The Golden Globes is a match made in TV heaven. He takes the edge off the sham. But the Academy… not a sham. Certainly not in the same category at all, in terms of a credible voting block.

“There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on. Congratulations to me,” Kimmel said on his show last night. “I’m hosting the Oscars and I had sex. Two things as a teenage boy I never thought would be possible.”

Funny. Kinda sweet. But is this how The Academy sees itself?

If so, good will and god bless. A night of self-deprecation it is!

That’s not how I see the Academy.

Taking a little air out of the balloon is always a pleasure. But when you become self-mocking, the brand is being damaged… at least when the brand is the 800-pound gorilla in the category. And Oscar is that.

I have nothing against Jimmy Kimmel. He succeeded through hard work and a commitment to finding his sweet spots. A winner.

But what is the Academy these days? Not honest about race. Not honest about managing older members. Finding weird little areas of the now wildly overgrown Oscar marketing season to pick on for stern new limitations while looking the other way at so many direct assaults on Academy members.

The Academy seems very intent on fixing what is right in front of its collective nose. And rarely considering decides on light of what makes the Academy the worldwide institution that it is.

I love the Academy, even from outside. I have devoted years of my life to understanding it and judging it from afar. The mess around The Oscars is not that much of a mess. It just needs a firm hand and some serious intent about reinforcing the foundations of the organization.

Ironically, AMPAS was not started with the best of intentions. It was a method of consolidating and sharing power. And for its first decades, it was run by the studios as a great marketing tool and little more. But it became something more, whether purists like it or not. And that thing it became? That is what I miss in 2016.

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6 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The Host & The Show”

  1. Karl says:

    It reads to me like MacFarlane was the only one in your list where the host choice was attempting to be the ratings driver. Same bent as Gervais/Globes: “What will he say?? How deep will he cut?” The choice of Rock last year seemed the most blatant attempt to repeat the host being the driver, given the circumstances surrounding the nominations.

    Other than that, I think you’re right. It’s been either driven by the movie(s) in contention or trying to add a flavor here or there with the host in a “down”(?) year for nominees: Stewart, Franco/Hathaway, NPH, Ellen I. (Ellen II seemed like, “We did a 40? Yes, thank you, more please.”)

    If the AMPAS had a vision for what the message/meaning of the award/ceremony meant to the Academy, and if a truly consistent producing presence behind-the-scenes was able to work within that framework to cater to the movies/nominees/issues of the year while not feeling like a reboot every time, that would go a long way to addressing the ratings “problem.”

    AMPAS needs the general public to watch its ceremony. Not just Hollywood insiders. Not just people who read the trades. Not just people who know who most of the nominees are – if they haven’t seen most/all of them already. Millions of people who literally probably didn’t think of the Oscars since last year’s show. Millions of people who couldn’t tell you there’s a difference between “AMPAS” and however they would define “Hollywood.” Millions of people who saw the biggest blockbusters of the year, rented a few of the others at home, but who for the most part are thinking of their own lives and the 12 other TV shows they watch live or save on their DVR. If the ceremony is a reboot every year, that’s going to frustrate or confound the casual viewers that make up the bulk of that number. But if people know what they’re getting (more or less, with room for a few surprises) they’ll know if they want to make time to watch the show that year.

  2. Bob Burns says:

    It’s the movies….. isn’t that what you often say about box office/eyeballs?

    Academy members don’t want to vote for popular films. They tried it with 10 and didn’t like it.

  3. Hallick says:

    1. Since they constantly swing from one host to another, the Oscars can’t establish a tradition that the public is happy to come back to year after year. It’s an old fogey kind of idea, but it would be nice to keep the same host for a while and build up a steady connection with the audience.

    2. Even for die hard movie buffs, the endless awards race chatter on the internet has got to be killing a ton of interest in the Oscars by the time they finally arrive on the air. Every possible outcome has been chewed up and spit out by January.

  4. Sam E. says:

    As someone who cares a lot more about movies than the ‘show’ or fashion, Charlie Rose blandly introducing people would be fine by me. I don’t think that’s going to happen though and in the mean time Kimmel is just fine.

  5. Monco says:

    The lack of surprise in the winners of the prestige categories is the major reason I’ve lost interest. There are two many minor award shows leading up to the Oscars. The only reason I watch is for the technical awards to be honest.

  6. Rodd Hibbard says:

    I’m not sure the choice of host is that important. A good host adds to the show, but that’s not really why we tune in. I think one of the major mistakes the Academy made was when they moved the Honorary awards etc to a separate show. Like many viewers I liked seeing older stars receiving awards, and acknowledging the history of US cinema. I also agree that the element of surprise has gone now that there are so many early awards that you almost no the results before the ceremony begins – still I tune in in case there’s a surprise

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon