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Cates’ Innovations Keep Oscars Fresh

Mar 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In the early 1950s people were staying home in ever-larger numbers to watch television instead of going to the movies. Many Hollywood moguls were in a panic. Instead of seeing TV as a new market and a place to promote their products, they saw it as the enemy.

Some even believed that allowing movie stars to appear on awards broadcasts hurt the sale of movie tickets by giving away for free something people had paid to get. The moguls opposed allowing the Academy Awards to be shown on the new medium.

Then in 1953 a number of studios, including Warner Bros., Universal and Columbia, refused to provide financial support for the Academy Awards as in previous years. They pulled back because times were tough economically and their films weren’t nominated. The Oscars could have ended right there.

Instead, TV and electronics manufacturer RCA, which owned the NBC Network, offered $100,000 for TV and radio rights, according to film historian Robert Osborne in his book “75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards.” There was a vigorous debate within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but in the end, to save the ceremony, the academy had to accept the offer, which resulted in the first telecast of the Oscars, in 1953.

Today, of course, the Academy Awards are one of the biggest TV events of the year, playing to a global audience. This year ABC will pay the academy about $45 million as part of a long-term agreement.

After an awards season in which almost every televised kudofest has suffered lower ratings than in years past, there was a sense of doom even before Chris Rock cracked a joke about this year’s being the last Oscars show.

Many critics blasted the show and others wrote about the ratings being down. If what you read gave the impression the Oscars didn’t do well, Oscars telecast producer Gil Cates wants to correct that notion. He, ABC and the academy believe they dodged a bullet. “When you consider the fact no one had any vested interest in [the films nominated for best picture, which had not been widely seen] and that there has been a gigantic general decline in ratings, the network is overjoyed,” said Mr. Cates, who just produced his 12th Oscars show in 16 years. “The academy did phenomenally well.”

In other words, at a time when awards telecasts from the Tonys to the Grammys have seen audience hemorrhage, the Oscars stanched the bleeding and even picked up some badly needed younger viewers. You can argue about whether Chris Rock and the speeded-up format worked aesthetically, but they did help attract more youthful viewers.

Mr. Cates insisted he would welcome back Mr. Rock as host next year if it were up to him. However, he would also be happy if the host were Billy Crystal or Steve Martin. He said last week he would even try it with David Letterman again, though there are probably well more than 10 reasons that will never happen.

The truth is the Oscars and all awards shows have a problem. The audience is ever more diluted, with nearly endless choices on broadcast and cable, not to mention on DVD and TiVo. So facing this inevitable erosion, Oscar took a stand. Cates and Co. tried some innovations and survived.

The reality is that the time has come to rethink awards on TV. Some should go away and others belong on a digital channel where a niche audience, and targeted advertisers, can support lower expectations.

Back in 1953 it was a novelty to see a star behind the scenes. Today we know way too much about many so-called stars. There are too many celeb-focused shows, magazines, Web sites and other media more than willing to share their secrets. Instead of being an event that honors good work, the ceremony attracts many viewers hoping to mock the fashions or catch a gaffe. A show that comes off smoothly, as the recent Oscarcast did, is a bore to the short-attention-span crowd. Even fashions have become boringly sleek and relatively simple lest the wearer face the scorn of the fashion police.

The movie academy moved the Oscars to an earlier date in recent years so there wouldn’t be such a feeling of seen that-done that-heard that before the show. But for 2005, moving up the date also meant there was less time to get the nominated movies into wide distribution. So this effort to keep the show fresh took away much of viewer interest in the top films.

“They’re not bad movies,” Mr. Cates said of this year’s best movie nominees. “But about five days before the show, all of them together were seen by less people than `The English Patient’ had been seen [in 1997]. It was really a pathetic number of people. That made it a very rough road.”

Then there is the national mood toward celebrities and Hollywood. A few blocks from where the Oscars ceremony took place in Hollywood, there is a billboard making fun of celebrities who were on the wrong side of the recent election. It played off a sense that celebrity is too cheap, there is too much back-slapping and not enough humility in show business. Some of that is true. The undertow, however, is the sense that an enormous number of people now think they can, or should, be the star, not those people on the red carpet. So like those shortsighted moguls of 1953, there will always be traditionalists who don’t like changes that are needed to keep even a franchise institution relevant.

“You’re not selling Preparation H here,” grumbled former Sony Pictures Chairman and academy member John Calley in The New York Times last week. “You don’t sacrifice the essence of it to achieve speed or youth.”

Actually, you do, if you want to keep those big checks coming from ABC and that global promo machine humming. If you don’t believe it, ask the Miss America pageant, which that very network dropped last year. If the ratings go into free fall, in a symbolic sense you really are going to need that Preparation H, and not just as an advertiser.