It's a good thing Oscar can't furrow his gold-plated brow. If he could, a glance at the recent ratings for the sort of star-studded, glamorous awards show that he has come to personify would no doubt crease his shiny face with worry lines.
The Grammys? Down 28 percent from the previous year, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Golden Globes? Down 37 percent.
The Emmys? Down 23 percent.
The People's Choice Awards? Down 29 percent.
If the 77th Annual Academy Awards telecast grows or breaks even in the ratings Sunday night on ABC, it will be the only prime-time network awards show to do so this season. And though ABC executives say they're optimistic, there are few if any blockbuster films in this year's crop of nominees likely to bring in the audience that, say, "Titanic" did for the 1998 ceremony.
What's more, industry observers say, ABC is up against a long-term and seemingly inexorable trend: People just don't watch awards shows anymore, at least not in the numbers that they did just a few years ago.
"It's a pretty striking phenomenon this year," said Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "It doesn't seem to matter what the art form is, or who's giving the award. There's a broad, long-term trend. We have noticed with a certain amount of disquiet that the other shows leading into ours haven't exactly been knocking the ball out of the park, and we're wondering what's going to happen."
The basic awards show template--red-carpet entrances, designer dresses, elaborate staging, heartfelt acceptance speeches--has gone largely unchanged for decades, while the entertainment industry and the culture of celebrity have undergone massive shifts.
"I think someone desperately needs to reinvent the awards show format," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, director of entertainment for the media-buying firm Starcom MediaVest Group. "There's a whole generation that grew up on the MTV awards shows. You can't expect them to watch their grandfather's awards show."
The allure of the movie star that helped networks gather more than 80 percent of the television audience for the Oscars in decades past has been eclipsed by a barrage of celebrity news and gossip--including countless Oscar imitators, from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors Guild Awards--turning what once was a Hollywood spectacle into a relatively commonplace event.
Blockbusters draw viewers
"When I was a boy, if you wanted to see Jimmy Stewart, you could either go to the movies or watch the Oscars," said Gil Cates, the executive producer of this year's Oscar ceremony and a longtime veteran of awards shows. "But now--the Golden Globes had more stars than the heavens, and it still tanked. Stars alone do not make a show or a rating."
What usually does make an Oscar rating is a blockbuster film in contention for best picture. The most-watched telecast in Oscar history was in 1998, when "Titanic" won 11 awards and pulled in 55.2 million viewers. And even Cates is worried that this year's crop of nominees is notably lacking in the blockbuster department.
"The fortunes of the Oscars are directly related to how many people have seen the films," he said.
By the time the Oscars aired in 1998, "Titanic" had sold about 105 million tickets, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. That's nearly three times the 38 million tickets sold for this year's best picture nominees--"The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Million Dollar Baby," "Ray" and "Sideways"--combined.
In the face of those less than encouraging numbers, ABC is doing what it can to generate interest in the show, most notably by hiring a professional bomb-thrower, comedian Chris Rock, as host.
"In a year when the movies that we've decided are the most interesting movies are smaller," the academy's Davis said, "then the host is a huge arrow in our quiver."
The choice of Rock, who tends to find comedy in uncomfortable truths about race and is one of Hollywood's more foul-mouthed comedic stars, is clearly an effort on ABC's part to draw in younger audiences that might take a pass on Billy Crystal or Steve Martin.