First, the good news. Ratings for this year’s Academy Awards telecast were up 12% -- clearly last year’s slap drew more folks to this year’s show, perhaps hoping to see more drama.
Now, the bad news. It was still among the lowest-rated Oscar telecasts.
So here comes the annual barrage of Hollywood hand-wringing. Another round of headlines asking “Is Oscar Out of Touch With America?” More articles wondering how the Academy can attract new audiences.
But here's a radical proposition. Ready for it? Maybe the Academy isn’t to blame.
Perhaps the real question we should be asking is, “Is America Out of Touch With Oscar?”
After all, the Oscars haven’t changed very much in the 80 years they’ve been handed out. The films and stars are different each year, to be sure, but the televised show itself is always sluggish, star-studded, cringe-inducing, inspiring, overlong, funny, boring, glamorous, tedious, self-serious and overblown.
The average American has never heard of most of the nominated films, much less seen them, the argument goes. Why should they care?
This is true. But that has almost always been the case, hasn't it? Mr. Joe Blue Collar didn’t see My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music in the 1960s, nor Cabaret or Annie Hall in the 1970s. Maybe he hadn't heard of them either. But his household still usually tuned in every year back then.
It was event television. Must-see TV, whether you'd seen the films or not.
So what has changed?
We have changed.
So maybe it's time to stop blaming the Academy Awards.
Back in the 1950s through to the early seventies, weekly TV variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and Omnibus brought the greatest opera singers, dancers, mimes, and Broadway stars into our homes every Sunday night.
Even if you weren’t a fan of classical music, you knew who Leontyne Price was.
If you lived in Peoria, you still knew about the biggest musicals on the Great White Way.
And even if you hated ballet, you still probably knew what Rudolf Nureyev did for a living.
Throughout much of the previous century, many Americans saw the arts as something akin to eating your vegetables. One might not like them, but one knew they were good for you. A necessary evil.
That mentality has all but disappeared from our society. And there are many reasons why.
One is the multitude of modern-day entertainment options, and the resulting splintering of audiences. There’s simply too much to watch out there.
And with so many choices, one never has to see anything one doesn’t want to see. There is no “eating your vegetables” in today’s entertainment landscape.
All these choices have also made us lazy. Too many of us refuse to pay attention to anything that doesn’t directly appeal to us. We don’t have to, because there’s so much out there to choose from. (I'm just as guilty as anyone else.)
One can always find something just for them. Why spend three hours watching an awards show you might hate, when you could use that time binging your favorite sitcom or reality show?
We’ve also dumbed down as a society (the causes are many and way too complex for a single blog post).
Too many Americans would rather watch some true-life crime documentary series on Netflix than sit through something thought-provoking like Triangle of Sadness or disturbing like Tar. Today’s average American wants to be merely entertained. To feel without having to think too much.
The current anti-elite sentimentality is also to blame. Many Americans (and not just conservatives) see the entertainment industry as leftist and hopelessly elitist.
A wave of anti-snobbery is infecting our nation. Anything “high brow” or artistic or “woke" -- be it high-quality films or a college degree or even science -- is considered elitist by too many Americans. They simply aren't interested in recognizing excellence, unless it's on a sports field or in an arena.
Seeing a bunch of well-paid, well-dressed celebrities celebrating themselves apparently drive a lot of folks nuts these days, especially if/when winners use their acceptance speeches to make political statements.
These “anti-woke” folks would rather ignore high quality, or even ridicule it, than acknowledge it. It’s easier to say “That movie sounds stupid” than to ask “Have I become ignorant?”
Another reason? Back in the days when most households had only one television, families had no choice but to watch just one show, together, like it or not. If Mom wanted to watch the Oscars, the whole family watched.
With the exception of the Super Bowl, there simply are no more family-viewing events. Mom is watching the Kardashians in the kitchen; Dad is in the living room watching ESPN or CNN; the kids are in their rooms, immersed in TikTok or God knows what else on their phones or pads.
And then, there is the sorry state of cinema itself. COVID and streaming have completely blurred the lines between TV and film. These days, even folks who claim to love cinema are loathe to see a film outside their home. They love movies, but hate going to the movies.
It also seems like the era of the movie star is dying. Smaller, character-driven films are rare. All the superhero movies are beginning to blur together. Reboots and "requels" are less risky and come with built-in buzz. Is it any wonder cinema is losing its hypnotic hold on us?
One final reason? The Oscars used to be the only show in town. (The Golden Globes was merely it's poor bastard cousin until recently.) Now we also have the televised SAG Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, the People's Choice Awards, the Critics' Choice Awards, the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards...
Long story short, awards shows have become as ubiquitous as superhero movies. The Academy Awards can't help but be damaged by the glut of golden statues being handed out at ceremonies on TV, most within weeks of each other.
The Academy Awards are not in danger. Hell, for-your-consideration campaigning alone has become a multi-million dollar industry itself. But the show may need to adjust to being just another awards show.
Because when I bring up the Oscars with friends, most have the same reaction:
So let's stop putting the blame on the Oscars for attracting smaller and smaller audiences. For seeming irrelevant to many of us.
The fault isn't with the show.
It's just that much of America frankly doesn't give a damn anymore.
P.S.: In the interest of full disclosure: I grew up watching & loving the Oscars. These days, I hate-watch it more than anything ... but I still watch!
If you enjoyed this blog, and would like to read more pieces like it, check out my new book Expletives Not Deleted, coming May 30, 2023 in paperback, e-book & audio book!