In another 48 hours, we’ll know if it worked—the Oscar show’s Audience Replacement Therapy.
Almost inevitably, total viewers for Sunday night’s Academy Awards telecast on ABC will rise from last year’s pathetic 10.4 million. The bar is very low, and other recent awards shows—the Emmys, SAG, Critics Choice—have all caught a bounce. For the Oscars to miss the general uptick would be disastrous indeed.
But the more interesting issues will involve the identity of that presumably expanded audience. Because, in the run-up to Sunday night’s show, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently has been working not so much to get its lost viewers back, as to replace them.
Oscar producer Will Packer, talking with IndieWire, has pointed toward the Super Bowl, describing an event strategy calculated to entice viewers with songs, laughs and entertainment value, no matter who is playing in the game. The theory is that core movie fans will show up in any case; the rest will come for Billie Eilish or Beyoncé or the trio of comic hosts, Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall.
The described approach, in truth, isn’t so different from that of a decade ago, when showmen-producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron gave us host Seth MacFarlane and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles singing “We Saw Your Boobs.” It was tasteless, but it attracted 40.38 million viewers.
Still, there’s something more pointed in the air this year. The cold determination to push eight awards categories—including editing, musical score and production design—off the live broadcast and into a clipped video signals a willingness to let movie purists sit on the sidelines and sulk. More time for jokes, and perhaps some cutaways to the cheap(er) seats, at a $100-a-head house party (three free drink tickets included) in the Academy Museum. And more breathing room for the new viewers, a younger, hipper group who—whether or not they have seen CODA or The Power Of The Dog—know how to have a good time.
Even while fending off supporters of the snubbed editors and composers—defenders as celebrated as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron—the Academy reached out last week to a portion of the replacement audience with a “Club Quarantine” video pep rally conducted by DJ D-Nice, who will be performing before, during and after Sunday’s Oscar show. Wanda Sykes made an appearance. Meanwhile, Packer and Academy Executive Vice-President Shawn Finnie bantered about what they called “the community,” and how it was expected to “elevate” the awards.
What they meant was never precisely clear. But if the idea is to attract black viewers, that certainly makes sense—Nielsen data, shared with my colleague Brooks Barnes and myself at The New York Times, showed that the best-rated ceremonies between 2005 and 2014 were consistently those that attracted African-Americans. In those years, the dominant white and Hispanic Oscar audience was stable, at about 35 million viewers each year; by contrast, black viewers, who varied between 2 million and 5 million every year, depending largely on the presence of black nominees, were a swing factor. (How Asians figured, I can’t precisely recall; but their presence was relatively small.)
This year, those viewers, with whomever else TikTok and Instagram can draw, are apparently expected to carry the show. As for the film faithful, however many are left, well–never mind the “Movie Lovers Unite” official poster–they’re just along for the ride.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.