Before the Grammys, producer Ben Winston — eyeing recent history for such events during this pandemic year — conceded that he was anticipating a major rating decline, a prediction that came true.
Organizers of the Academy Awards are avoiding crystal balls, but they too appear resigned to the grim prospect that, for all their efforts and precautions, a disappointing number of viewers will tune in Sunday night. The question, in fact, seems goes beyond just how low ratings will go in this lost year to whether award shows can rebound from the declines already witnessed in 2020 and 2021 if and when the world returns to a semblance of normalcy.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, director Steven Soderbergh, who is among this year’s Oscar producers, dismissed ratings concerns by saying, “We’re worrying about things that we can control and that’s not on that list.” The priority, he added, was to provide the winners “the opportunity to stand up in a room, be handed an Oscar and have that moment. Even though it’s been an incredibly challenging year, we didn’t want to cheat them out of that experience.”
Yet focusing on the nominees and winners overlooks that these award shows are themselves commercial enterprises, faced with the task of attracting an audience. If they don’t, advertising for such events will slide, and the spigot of revenue the organizations behind them rely on will gradually dry up.
The New York Times reported that ABC, which airs the Oscars, is still seeking $2 million per each 30-second spot, a double-digit decline from last year’s ads, but almost assuredly less than the overall audience will fall.
In terms of solutions, the process of righting the ship, if that’s still possible, might begin with clearly identifying the problems. Even before the pandemic, the persistent slide in award-show ratings prompted ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to toy with the idea of a “popular film” category, a proposal that was nixed after considerable criticism in 2018.
Still, while the Academy has recognized several very good films this century, “popular” generally hasn’t described them. As Variety reported, not one best-picture winner has cracked the top 10 box-office-wise since “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” capped off that trilogy in 2004.
Watching “Titanic” sail away with a then-box-office record and a best picture win — a happy wedding of art and commerce, prompting director James Cameron to memorably proclaim himself “The king of the world” — seems like a distance memory. Roughly 55 million people in the US watched that night, more than double last year’s record-low total of 23.6 million viewers, per Nielsen data.
After dismal results for the Golden Globes and Grammys, another drop in the 50% range appears well within the ballpark for what has traditionally been one of the TV calendar’s most-watched events.
While a few blockbusters have crept into the nominations — including Marvel’s “Black Panther” two years ago — the Oscars face the same challenge that has plagued the Emmys and other award shows: A general fragmentation of the audience, and a corresponding move to celebrate more niche-oriented fare.
Those dynamics have only been exacerbated by the pandemic year, when five of the eight best-picture nominees and other movies, like favored animation contender “Soul,” all premiered on streaming services. While Hollywood is desperately hoping that movie-going can rebound, there’s no certainty of putting the watch-at-home genie back in the bottle.
Seen that way, this year’s Oscars can perhaps be forgiven for wanting to reward the recipients with a night to remember. Yet if award shows want to have any sort of future that recalls their past, they’re going to need to give viewers something to remember too, and just as significantly, something to root for. And it’s hard to root for movies, frankly, that you haven’t seen in the first place.
The 93rd Academy Awards will air April 25 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.