On Sunday night, tens of Americans will be vibrating with tension, breathless to learn who will be dubbed the new suzerain of sound effects editing. Does Richard King have the inside track for the crown? Dare any of the voters risk saying nay to Tom Sayers? I’ll be rooting for Wylie Stateman purely because I like his name (and hope he is tapped to be our next U.N. envoy as soon as possible.)
For the rest of us, though, the above-named (who are Oscar nominees for The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, and Wanted, respectively) will simply blot up our precious time as the evening blithers on. The only true suspense about the Oscarcast — where Slumdog Millionaire seems virtually guaranteed to win the top honors, and where the evening’s hot Best Actor race between Sean Penn for Milk and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler, involves two films whose combined audience is smaller than that for Hotel for Dogs — is how low the ratings can possibly slide this time. In an era in which Cate Blanchett counts as a glamour queen and the barely-known Hugh Jackman is called upon to host, the Nielsens for this year’s festivities may make the Dow Jones look robust by comparison.
Is there anything the most beautiful people in the world can do to firm up their saggy, dumpy ratings? Well, they could nominate films people have actually seen, or add a “fan’s choice award” to be voted on during the telecast, but they’d never do that because the Academy sees itself as a corrective to mob rule. We already know The Dark Knight was the big hit of 2008, but without the Oscar halo, millions of people would have missed out on the sparkle of Slumdog Millionaire.
There was a time when the Oscars were broadcast in the punitive time slot of Monday night at 10 p.m. Eastern — and the ratings were astonishing. Two-thirds of the total TV audience was watching the Oscars in the ’70s. In the ’50s, it was more like 80 percent. Last year, Jon Stewart scored a 29 percent rating, suggesting public approval equivalent to that of his favorite target. (The Super Bowl, meanwhile, still gets nearly two-thirds of the total TV audience, down only slightly since the 1970s.)