Essays · Movies

How to Drag the Oscars Broadcast Into the 21st Century

It’s time for this broadcast to get with the times.
Oscars Broadcast Format Fix
By  · Published on February 22nd, 2019

The Oscars love the past. The gowns, the trophies, the montages: they paint an image of the Golden Hollywood of yore, a world of glamor in black and white. It’s a celebration not just of the movies we’ve loved this year, but every year, of this fledgling industry as a whole and how far it has come in just a hundred years of filmmaking. The Academy has worked, as of late, to diversify its ranks, honor popular films, and make its reach as far and as broad as possible. Why, then, is its broadcast itself so unwilling to adapt to change?

Other awards ceremonies, sports championships, and televised extravaganzas have worked to adapt to the digital age, attempting to make their own broadcasts both buzzworthy and accessible. Here are a few lessons the Oscars can learn from them (and from themselves) to shape up and modernize – or else get left in the past.

Stream the ceremony

ABC will be the broadcast home for the Oscars for the next decade or so – that is, if network television hangs on for that long. We live in an age where audiences have grown past appointment television, used to the ease, comfort, and specialization of a culture dominated Netflix. The future of the Oscars, then, lies with streaming.

As of publication time, the only way one can tune into the Oscars is through the network itself, on the ABC app, or on in a handful of US cities, provided they have a participating TV provider. Anyone who’s cut the cord with cable is left out in the cold. That’s a lot of potential viewers: less than a third of millennials use cable as their primary method of watching television. By comparison, NBC paired up with Hulu to broadcast last year’s Emmys, and the Grammys, hosted on CBS, were available to stream on their own CBS All Access platform (which does not require a cable login) or through YouTube TV. Year by year, awards shows are finally getting with the program.

Yet as much as the streaming giants dominate the cultural conversation, ABC is owned by another Goliath: Disney. They own a stake of Hulu, so there’s a chance – albeit a small one – that the Powers That Be could take a chance on the service to air the ceremony. Even more likely, they could place the Oscars on their eventual streaming service of their own.

But all we can do is speculate. For now, we know that by keeping the Oscars tethered to network television, the Academy and Disney are losing out on valuable – i.e. youthful – viewership. As streaming continues to launch onto more and more screens, connecting with audiences outside the narrow scope of cable is key to making the Oscars as populist as they can ever be.

Drop some trailers

No one watches the Super Bowl for football. Okay, yes, sports fans do, but for the pop culture obsessed, it’s all about what comes in between men knocking each other on the head: the commercials. But who says that football games have the only right to air major ads?

Modern marketing is all about creating the next trending topic on Twitter – so, in other words, dropping exclusive trailers. The buzz around the trailers at this year’s Super Bowl – namely, those for Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel – permeated Film Twitter’s collective timeline more than any pass made by Tom Brady.  The Oscars would do well to make use of the time in between those speeches and presentations to create the biggest possible televised spectacle. Go ahead, Academy: dazzle us. Give us a trailer in between below-the-line categories.

Or, as the ceremony trucks on into the night, dangle viewers along by promising a sneak peek of the next reboot or sequel or superhero flick towards the end of the broadcast. ABC, after all, has the entire Disney empire to work with. Even the briefest glimpse of what’s next on their slate is sure to produce the ratings bump the Academy so desperately craves.

These breaks offer an opportunity to connect with the average moviegoer. Here is a way to reach out to the non-Oscar-obsessed without the need for an entire Popular Film Category. The celebration of cinema doesn’t need to be limited to the nominated films. The Oscars have so much to gain by courting advertisers, using their offerings to celebrate not only the year of film past but also the year to come. Sure, that’s four hours of television for a 30-second clip, but you don’t see anyone complaining about it during the Super Bowl.

Start the show early

This year, the Academy’s Board of Governors are hyper-focused on keeping the show to three hours, to the point of attempting to cut performances and relegate entire categories to commercial breaks. This comes down to ratings: viewers tend to drop off as the show creeps closer and eventually past 11 p.m. ET. Ending earlier is a worthy endeavor; last year’s show clocked in at nearly four hours, ending just shy of midnight for East Coast dwellers.

This Oscars begin at 8 p.m. ET. / 5 p.m. PT. Right at the start of primetime. But there’s no need to adhere to traditional broadcast standards.  Rather, they would be in good company. The Emmys have shifted, in previous years, to Monday nights to accommodate Sunday Night Football or the MTV Video Music Awards; the Super Bowl begins mid-afternoon to accommodate their extravaganza; the Royal Weddings began in the wee hours of the morning and lasted well into the day. Oscar coverage begins before primetime, as well: celebrities begin strolling down the red carpet as much as an hour and a half before the show begins.

By starting earlier, the ceremony can be as long as it pleases without the risk of losing viewers late into the evening. No need to sideline below-the-line categories, lesser-known performers, or Armie Hammer as he shoots hot dogs into an unsuspecting crowd. So do it, Academy. Think of my sleep schedule, and let’s get this show rolling.

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East Coast writer, tweeter, and pasta aficionado. On a journey to befriend Barry Jenkins.