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The Oscars Get Smaller: Why Cut Categories Off the Live Broadcast?


The Oscars are shrinking, and it is not a pretty sight. Two weeks after nominees for the 94th Academy Awards were announced, the organization dropped a doozy. Eight categories, out of a total of 23, will be dealt with before ABC begins its live broadcast. The outliers are Sound, Film Editing, Production Design, Original Music Score, Make-up and Hairstyle, Animated Short, Live Action Short, and Documentary Short. Feature-length Documentary was spared, probably because of their increased popularity and cultural clout in the streaming era.

The first salvo in the war to sell this change as something positive was a letter sent to members from Academy President David Rubin. “We must prioritize the television audience to increase viewer engagement and keep the show vital, kinetic, and relevant...” writes Ruben. How did they come to this conclusion just now? The show has been on TV since 1953. By now, television's domination of popular culture is waning. In its place, we have the internet and social media. No amount of trimming is going to revert that. There is no mention of those darned kids with their Instagram feeds and Tik-Tok accounts, but you can tell they are very much in the mind of the Academy and the network.

At heart, we have an existential conflict. Is celebrating arts at odds with popularity? The numbers seem to say yes. Oscar ratings are higher when a bona fide box office hit competes.

The Academy and ABC want cultural cachet…and ratings. At heart, we have an existential conflict. Is celebrating arts at odds with popularity? The numbers seem to say yes. Oscar ratings are higher when a bona fide box office hit competes. In 1998, around 57.25 million viewers saw James Cameron claim the throne of king of the world. By Oscar night, March 23, Titanic had earned over 495 million dollars at the domestic box office. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020) took the top prize on April 25, 2021, to the lowest audience ever, 10.4 million people. By then, it had finished its theatrical run. It made a little over 2 million dollars.

The comparison is unkind. One is a studio behemoth, and the other is a low-fi, intimate indie. It’s apples and oranges. Even the pandemic is at play, and we still must contend with it. The highest-rated Oscar telecast remains the 42nd Academy Awards, where Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) took the prize. Nielsen estimates ratings at 43.4%. Titanic's prom night brought 35.32%. 

The behind-the-scenes talent gets pushed to the margins for the sake of an audience unlikely to materialize at all. Not just the Oscars are slipping in the ratings. Pretty much every awards show suffers from declining viewership. We have a compound crisis. Broadcast TV is losing cultural capital, taking its former war horses down. Rubin promises the show will be “...vital, kinetic and relevant” but it will still last three hours. It is an improvement if you were somehow offended by the 4 hours and 23 minutes that the 2019 telecast - the longest in history - took away from you. No amount of trimming is going to make unengaged audiences care.

Keeping some awards out of the live cast is nothing new. Technical achievement trophies have been made public in separate events for quite some time. Nine non-competitive prizes followed suit. The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and memorial awards went off-camera in 2009. Edited segments make it to the telecast. Such is the lot that awaits the artists nominated in the exiled categories. Winners will be announced while the red carpet coverage eats up the airwaves. Per Rubin, “Those presentations will then be edited by our creative and production teams and will be folded seamlessly into the live televised show".

Movie lovers unite! The 94th Academy Awards air LIVE SUNDAY MAR 27 on ABC.

Gee, thanks! Still, it is common in the world of award shows. The Recording Academy hands out Grammys in 86 categories. You would need a full-day telecast to cover that. So, those dedicated to more popular genres are reserved for the live broadcast on prime time, mixing them up with live musical numbers by high-profile, top liners. Do you want to know who won Best Polka Recording earlier in the day? Watch out for a lower-third graphic that may flash on-screen for 5 seconds, if at all.  

Film editors, composers, and make-up artists are not working in isolation, in a vacuum. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. Their efforts add up to a whole film, a story told in moving images and sound. Imagine Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) without Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, or Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg 1993) without John Willams’ musical score. It's impossible. In a way, a skewed meritocracy infects the industry. The crew gets split among  “above the line” and “below the line” talent. Even the Author Theory transmogrified into the idea that the director is the sole person responsible for a film. If only stars and the director count, nobody else is safe. Watch out, cinematographers. In the haste to make Oscars leaner, you may be next on the chopping block.

In the past, lobbying by influential power players averted similar measures. Back in 1992, the Academy Board of Governors moved to eradicate the categories of Best Documentary Short and Live Action Short. Lobbying from filmmakers like George Lucas and Taylor Hackford averted disaster. The eight downgraded categories will not disappear, but the visibility that comes with being featured in a live telecast, on par with the high-profile prizes, will be utterly lost. So far, intense blowback from specialized media and critics has not been successful.

It is hip to look down on award shows. And yet, I would venture that many cinephiles got an education on the intricacies of filmmaking by watching the Oscars.

In a mad dash to get ratings that are not there, the Academy is not just throwing under the bus their constituency. They are also thwarting their mission as promoters and educators of the film arts. It is hip to look down on award shows. And yet,  I would venture that many cinephiles got an education on the intricacies of filmmaking by watching the Oscars. General audiences might yawn at the explanation of what sound mixing is. For me, as a wee lad in Latin America, it was catnip. Between hacky comedy bits and misguided musical numbers, we get to see who the hell made the movies we love. They deserve to be celebrated and recognized. 

“Every awarded filmmaker and artist in every category will still have the celebratory ‘Oscar moment’ they deserve on the stage of the Dolby, facing an enrapt audience.” says Rubin. I say they deserve more. They deserve the few minutes it takes to walk to the stage, give a rambling speech to thank coworkers and spouses, and get cut off by the orchestra. Considering all the pleasure their work provides us,  the least we can do is to give them time and attention.

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