- - Thursday, February 21, 2019

Sunday’s telecast of the Academy Awards presentation should be a Hollywood victory lap.

Box office figures are up. Mass-appeal blockbusters such as “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star is Born” are among the nominees for best picture. #OscarSoWhite criticism has cooled.

Yet cultural observers note that the cachet behind Hollywood’s biggest night isn’t what it used to be. One need only note the show’s dwindling TV ratings to see hard proof of its decline.

Ratings for last year’s broadcast, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, fell 16 percent from the previous year, marking the lowest numbers in the telecast’s history. That decrease is part of a larger ratings trend for the annual showcase.

Kevin Howley, professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, said the Oscars still matter. The awards show’s diminished appeal — and that of film culture as a whole — has resulted from the internet, social media and the rise of new distribution platforms.



Audiences today don’t have to watch an Oscar telecast to see Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington or other A-list stars. Now they can spot them on any number of platforms or in viral videos.


QUIZ: Oscars: Test your knowledge of the Academy Awards


“I think it feeds into the exhaustion some people have with celebrity culture,” Mr. Howley said.

The event also has a harder time grabbing youthful eyeballs. Millennials captivated by YouTube aren’t as keen to spend three or four hours watching an awards show, Mr. Howley said.

Another problem plaguing the Oscars ceremonies is awards season fatigue. By Sunday, the public already has sat through the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Grammy Awards.

The Oscars took a self-inflicted hit last year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a new category aimed at “popular” movies. The move addressed worries that the winners often excluded blockbusters such as franchise sequels and reboots. Team Oscar quickly rescinded the concept after nearly universal derision.

The show took another body blow late last year when comedian Kevin Hart withdrew from hosting the ceremony after his past homophobic jokes came to light.

The awards presentation at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre will air without a host for the first time since 1989.

Radio talk show host Mark Reardon, a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, said social pressure may be pushing some movies into the winner’s circle. That, in turn, reduces the awards’ prestige as honoring the best in film.

“Black Panther” proved a critical and commercial smash, but superhero films rarely get Oscar’s attention. Few deny the aesthetic grace of “Black Panther,” but the film’s cultural significance may have coaxed a few extra votes, said Mr. Reardon, who reviews movies for KMOV-TV in St. Louis.

But given the movie’s broad popularity, “Black Panther” might help reverse the ceremony’s ratings slide, he said.

That kind of thinking “turns the Oscars into the Grammys,” Mr. Reardon said.

A more productive way to reverse the ratings slide would be to streamline the show, which often goes far beyond the three-hour mark, he said. That might mean finding a different way to honor artists on the technical side of the industry.

Even better, he suggests opening up the show to reveal how the movies are made. This year, that could mean illustrating how director/star Bradley Cooper recorded some of the live musical sequences in “A Star Is Born” instead of relying on lip-syncing to prerecorded songs.

In an effort to shorten the show, the Academy further embarrassed itself this month by announcing that the trophies for cinematography, editing, live-action short, and makeup and hairstyling would be awarded during commercial breaks. Social media outrage from A-list talent such as actor Russell Crowe and director Guillermo del Toro forced the Academy to reverse its decision and say those awards would be given during show time after all — thus ensuring another long night of acceptance speeches.

Oscar night has always had its share of political moments, such as Marlon Brando’s rejection of his best actor trophy for “The Godfather” in 1973 in protest of how Hollywood portrayed American Indians. Actress Sacheen Littlefeather spoke on his behalf that memorable night.

More recently, Michael Moore turned his 2003 win for the documentary “Bowling for Columbine” into a screed against President George W. Bush.

Now, Oscar night likely will be chockablock with liberal politics, including jokes targeting President Trump and speeches tied to gender equality and immigration rights, diversity and the #MeToo movement.

Such clarion calls for action “get echoed and amplified” across the media despite Hollywood’s own inertia in dealing with those issues, Mr. Howley said.

“A lot of the changes they’re calling for aren’t really taking hold,” he said.

Lisa Swain, professor of cinema and media arts at Biola University in La Mirada, California, notes an ironic twist to Oscar’s populist predicament. The awards began as a way to address American film’s initial leanings. While early European films embraced a more nuanced aesthetic, American films opted for broad appeal.

“The Academy Awards were an effort to elevate the content,” Ms. Swain said.

Modern Oscar nominees often are chosen for their social impact as much as cinematic grace, said Variety columnist Owen Gleiberman.

“The celebration — by critics, and now by the Academy — of movies that bend with extreme prejudice toward a progressive agenda is a retrofitted-for-the-Trump-era extension of that tradition,” Mr. Gleiberman said.

Ms. Swain suggests that the Oscars were generally meant to “appeal to our better angels.”

“Now, the masses, the populist view is, ‘I don’t care what the elites think,’ ” she said.

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