Fixing the Oscars
Fixing the Oscars

Is it even possible?

With the Oscars host announcement (and the host’s subsequent step down three days later), as well as the release of the Golden Globe nominee list last week, celebrity awards season is officially upon us. And this primetime entertainment bonanza won’t be wrapping up until the 91st Academy Awards in February of next year.

In this grand finale of awards shows, celebrities will come in their designer best, pose on the red carpet, and enjoy an event that costs the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences about 40 million dollars. Companies wanting to advertise during this 3-hour epic broadcast could be charged up to $2.6 million for a single :30-second spot.

The kicker? 68 percent of Americans don’t care about the Oscars – or the Grammys or the Emmys. Viewership for the 90th Oscars was about 26.6 million households, according to Nielson – a 47 percent drop from its recent peak in 2014. Sure that is still millions of viewers annually, but a single celebrity Fortnite Twitch stream can get half a million eyeballs – for the amount of money and time spent on the Oscars, those numbers should be much higher.

There have been some attempts by the Academy to bolster ratings and become more modern – with mixed results. Last year, the Academy decided to try and hop on to modern streaming platforms like Hulu, Facebook Live (arguably missing huge brand players Twitch and YouTube).

In August, the Academy announced some major changes, one of which including a Best Popular Movie category and shortening the ceremony to a maximum of 3 hours (via showing the “less popular” awards during the commercial breaks.) Popular Movie was quickly slammed by critics and movie fans alike and the Academy reversed course a month later.

The Academy Awards now reeks of desperation, and the stink only seems to grow with every attempt to spray potpourri on it. Producers of the Oscars, as well as the Academy, should be asking themselves: who this award show is televised for?

The Power of Content Compels Them

The most-watched Oscars was in 1998 when Billy Crystal hosted and Titanic took Best Picture. Talk about a home run of both of those elements. 55.25 million people tuned into that show, but that’s only a difference of 11 million from when Ellen DeGeneres hosted in 2014. A good host is expected to boost the ratings of a show for the parent network. Add Best Picture contenders that people actually watched, and you have a recipe for success.

From the LA Times:

“I think that next year if 'Black Panther' is nominated for best picture the ratings will go up," said media consultant and former network executive Preston Beckman, referring to the critically lauded superhero mega-hit.

Beckman added that the academy's move to expand the number of nominees from five to as many as 10 has only given more attention to art house fare that much of the public is not familiar with. […] Privately, executives said they are hoping that more popular films will get nominated in the future.

The original pitch behind expanding the Best Picture category to ten nominees was to get more excellent big budget films into the show. However, that choice was met with intense derision by some of the Academy and now the 10-film category still has mostly artsier fare.

The Academy is taking good steps to help get more diversity in its voting members, which allows for a wider variety of films nominated as exceptional. However, even with this new influx of diversity, only 31 percent of Academy members are female and only 16 percent are people of color. It’ll take time for their picks to seep through to the actual nominees. Moreover, speaking of popular films, Best Popular Film was met with intense derision because of the subtext that a “Popular Film” cannot be a Best Picture – despite films like Titanic and West Side Story being evidence to the contrary.

The Academy should take a page from the Golden Globes. If there were two categories and both were treated with equal respect by making a Best Picture-Comedy or Action, then it will feel like a genuine commitment to films that mainstream audiences care about.



If You Build Distribution, They Will Come

If the Oscars want to swing a wider net on viewership and becoming an “event” people cannot miss, they need to make sure that they know how people consume TV these days: one eye on the TV and one eye on their smartphone. They’re scrolling through Twitter to find that perfect tweet that encapsulates their mood at the event, or looking for the gif that nails their reaction.

The Oscars have lost not just viewership over the years, but almost more troubling, social engagement as well.

From Variety:

Perhaps just as concerning as the drop in the Oscars audience, tweets were down 47% during this year’s show. That might be because the Oscars trudge along just as they always have, as if the Internet doesn’t exist.

There’s no informative polling, no audience participation, no direct engagement with the viewers at home. It’s not that the Oscars should turn into “American Idol” (although the show features just as much singing as the Fox reality series), but it couldn’t hurt to incorporate a few hashtags throughout the night. And all the attendees should be encouraged to live-tweet between the commercial breaks.

Millennials LOVE experiential content that provides them “genuine connection with others” and shareable “social media traction.” This makes viewers feel like part of the show, which ties directly into distribution channels.

Just look at The Game Awards, which happened last Thursday. Last year’s Game Awards viewership grew at 202 percent over the year prior. The biggest difference is that distribution was broad, available to stream on almost every single major service, as their commitment to interaction was literally palpable.

From their news portal:

On social platforms, The Game Awards posted double and triple digit gains in engagement – including on Twitter, where the number of people tweeting about Game Awards related-content doubled year over year, with #TheGameAwards hashtag usage up 2.7x compared to 2016.

This year, new interactive elements helped increase live engagement during the broadcast. On Twitch, The Game Awards Extension gave viewers a chance to interact with the show and predict winners in all the main show category. More than 70% of the Twitch audience interacted with the extension. On Steam, a “Game Awards Game Giveaway” during the live show helped drive record-setting live stream numbers, including an average watch time of 70 minutes per Steam viewer.

While it’s not Oscars branding to do giveaways, making the event special to viewers at home (potentially getting their social media channels featured) would get the younger set invested. Twitch made their own version of this interactivity for the Oscars last year, BUT you could not actually watch the Oscars telecast from this interactive “commentary track.” Disney-ABC will shut down any broadcast effort that is not on their official streams.

Time to Pivot! Pivot! Pivot!

For the Academy Awards to pivot into purpose again, they have to remember the overwhelming amount of choice that individuals have in their media. Gone are the days of three channels streaming only through the rabbit ears in your living room. In the modern media environment, the Oscars will need to become the content their audience craves, mindful of where and how they want to consume it, or they’ll continue suffering on the long road to irrelevance that they’re already walking.

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