Are The Oscars Irrelevant?
With the 85th annual Academy Awards (now rebranded "The Oscars") in the books, it might be right to raise the question: Is the awards show still relevant?
In terms of actual viewership figures, the Academy Awards ceremony has averaged between thirty-five and forty million people watching per year. The highest-rated Oscars telecast in recent history was the 76th Academy Awards in 2004, which was watched by 43.56 million people.
Of course, that was the year when the massive blockbuster The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was honored by the Academy with eleven nominations and won all of them. Since then, the ratings have slipped back to the usual thirty-five to forty million viewers per year. The lowest-rated Oscars in recent history was the 80th Academy Awards, which was only watched by 31.76 million people.
Insiders and critics blamed the recently-ended Writers' Guild of America strike and the lack of box office hits among the nominees. By comparison, other events like the Super Bowl regularly achieve much higher Nielsen ratings. Just one example, Super Bowl XLVI in 2012 was watched by an estimated average of 111.3 million people and an estimated total of 166.8 million people, making it the most-watched program in American television history. This proves that it is possible for an annual television event to achieve much higher ratings, but for multiple possible reasons, the Academy Awards aren't able to find that sort of success.
A possible reason for the struggles of The Oscars might be the disconnect between what the Academy members like and what the wider audience likes. Consider the backlash against the Academy in early 2009, when The Dark Knight did not receive a Best Picture nomination, but The Reader, a film which got much less praise from both critics and audiences, did make the Best Picture list.
Movies like Avatar, Inception, and Toy Story 3, which were both successful with audiences and received Best Picture nods, are very much the exception. There have even been cases where a movie that a majority of both critics and audiences disliked is selected by the Academy, such as the Best Picture nomination for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011), with some people calling the film one of the worst Best Picture nominees ever.
Another reason might be the overall declining viewership of television. With all the numerous channels available, the chance of any one show finding a very large audience is quite low. The highest-rated show on modern television is American Idol on Fox, which regularly achieves viewership figures in the twenty to twenty-five million range.
While these are considered extremely good ratings today, they would have been seen as nothing special in decades past, when TV was dominated by the big broadcast networks. The series finale of M*A*S*H on CBS in 1983 was watched by 105.94 million people, and it reigned as the most-watched broadcast in American television history for twenty-eight years. And unlike in days past, where if you missed the Oscars telecast you would have to wait for the next morning's newspaper to find out the winners, today there are numerous websites that post up-to-the-minute news of the ceremony. This makes it possible for someone to know what happened without even needing to have a television.
Additionally, the Academy may be having difficulties in connecting with younger viewers. With the exception of young cinephiles, the kinds of films the Academy tends to honor are usually not very popular with the youth audience.
In 2011, the Academy tried one of its most direct attempts to grab the young audience by having James Franco and Anne Hathaway co-host the 83rd Academy Awards. Unfortunately, the telecast only achieved a fairly average rating of 37.90 million viewers, and received a mixed-to-negative reception from critics and the public.
For all the Academy's talk of trying to appeal to younger audiences, they almost seem to be shooting themselves in the foot at times. Last year's Best Picture winner was The Artist, a black-and-white silent film made in France. Not exactly something the kids are going to flock to.
Of course, the Academy Awards telecast is not in any of danger of going away. While it may not be the kind of ratings juggernaut that some would like, it is still more than successful and profitable enough that it will continue to take place for many years to come. But only time will tell whether the Academy will overcome the factors that are holding their big night back from achieving even greater success.
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