The NFL is expected to release the official schedule for its 2020 season imminently, with a plan for its grand finale at the Super Bowl on February 7, 2021 airing this cycle on CBS. Business as usual.
Of course we know all about “plans” in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, and as one event after another has had to adjust, postpone or cancel — including nothing less than the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, now moved to summer, 2021 — “plans” are becoming like a house built on sand. No one knows exactly how this is all going to unfold, even as many parts of the world and the U.S. take baby steps to re-open incrementally.
Last week, word that the NFL has a contingency “plan” based on several models, including one that has the actual season beginning October 15, six weeks later than normal, but still playing a full 16-game slate that would end not with a February 7 Super Bowl but rather one on Sunday, February 28. The possibility, dependent on numerous factors based on when the league is comfortable with games during the pandemic, has been reported by sports outlets from NBC to Sports Illustrated after Sports Business Journal leaked it at the end of April.
So why is the awards columnist for Deadline suddenly so concerned about football schedules? The 93rd annual Academy Awards is set to take place, you guessed it, on Sunday February 28, 2021.
Arrrrgh! Can the NFL actually do an end run around the Oscars and touch down on a date the Academy has already staked out? In the weirdest of all circumstances, can the largely female appeal (according to advertisers) Oscar show go directly against the Holy Grail of television events, the largely male appeal (but really everyone in America if you look at ratings) Super Bowl? I will take a large bet and say, uh, no.
ABC, which spends heavily to broadcast the Oscars, would never allow it. Since I doubt the brawny NFL isn’t really worried about taking a ratings hit for the Super Bowl — a happening so large some would like a national holiday declared for the day after just for the country to recover from the excitement — what fool would try to program against it? You can bet it would be up to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to blink and find a new date for Oscar.
Of course, should COVID-19 send the Super Bowl to February 28 in this version of events, the Academy would have to know in a timely fashion as logistics involving the Dolby Theatre venue and many other things must be sorted out in doing the heavy lifting of moving the Oscars. And to where? Earlier would seem out of the question in this already threatened season where more time to see late-breaking fall movie releases will be needed more than ever. That means a move back to March, maybe even April? There is lots of precedence for this, and with all that is going on — even as we are talking about an event not even scheduled until 10 months from now — moving later could be an advantage since we don’t know what this pandemic-affected season is going to realistically even look like. We don’t even know what screening these contenders will look like in an environment where social distancing is the name of the game, and theater availability is an ongoing question mark.
Academy sources told Deadline today that the organization is aware of the February 28 Super Bowl date being floated but wouldn’t comment officially, referring me instead back to the last lines of their April 28 press release announcing changes in eligibility and categories for the 93rd Oscars. “Due to the shifting landscape surrounding the global pandemic caused by COVID-19, all matters of rules and eligibility for the 93rd Academy Awards are subject to change based on national guidelines, state-mandated government orders and Academy-determined best practices,” the said at the time. “Additional adjustments to Academy rules, eligibility requirements and scheduling may be required. As previously announced, the 93rd Oscars telecast is scheduled to air Sunday, February 28, 2021, on ABC. Any updated information about the show will be shared at a later time.”
Indeed, AMPAS CEO Dawn Hudson seemed to indicate flexibility when I specifically asked her, and president David Rubin, if the Academy was definitely sticking with the scheduled February 28 date in light of everything going on. “We are in Week 7 of the global pandemic and we are looking at everything in front of us, but that Oscar show is 10 months away from us now, and we can’t predict what is happening between now and February 28th,” Hudson said in clearly leaving wiggle room on the date. The comments came before reports of Super Bowl contingency plans were widely creeping out in the sports community.
Sources tell me the Academy is well aware of the entire calendar and will be assessing things as needed and making lots of decisions. In other words, there are a lot of moving parts in play and the Academy, once one of the more rigid institutions, is learning to pivot, just as it did when it moved the once-planned February 23 date for this year’s 92nd Oscars to February 9, partly in hopes of improving ratings (this year’s show drew Oscar’s smallest TV audience yet). And also in other words, nothing is set in stone, and that means Oscars, Super Bowls, Olympics, Cannes Film Festivals, you name it. Everyone has to be flexible and learn to play together in this ever-shifting sandbox. That includes you, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who recently told Good Morning America, “One thing I’ve learned about what we are going through as a country is you can’t tell a week from now much less three months from now, so, our job is to be ready. We will obviously be ready to make alternatives.”
In terms of taking the 93rd Oscar show to a later date, the telecast didn’t even move into Super Bowl territory in the ratings sweeps month of February until it shifted a month from its late March dates, beginning with the 76th awards to February 29, 2004; it consistently held the show in March since the 61st awards in 1989. This year, the Super Bowl fell on February 2, just a week before Oscar and the closest the two have ever come to each other. The Oscars did make allowances for the Winter Olympics every four years by airing first week of March every four years. The 60th Oscar show was the last to date to take place in April (on the 11th) in 1988.
The latest that the Oscars have ever taken place, at least in the televised era that began in 1953, was for the 38th awards, on April 18, 1966. That also happened to be the first time the show was broadcast in color.
Super Bowl or not, Oscar could — and I emphasize could — eventually be looking at a move regardless of any football concerns and depending on events that are largely out of its control. As Hudson indicated, who can predict when will happen between now and February 28? She might even add, who can predict what will happen on February 28 to that as well.
To be continued.