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.)
Even if the awards voting process stayed exactly the same, the Nielsens would rocket like Iron Man if only the Academy would ditch its manual (page one: “Be as dull as possible”) and try these simple suggestions:
- Get an unpredictable host. How about an Oscar-winning performer (Jackman has never even been nominated) who has proven so magnetic that he can draw people to a movie that’s nothing more than a thinly-veiled version of his life story? Hire Eminem to be your emcee, and you never know what will happen. He might beat up Moby. He might remarry and re-divorce his ex during the show. Young viewers and straight men would flock to the broadcast for the first time in decades. Which reminds me:
- De-gayify. Oscar wants to rebuild its viewership and it hires as its producer … the guy who made Dreamgirls? If there’s anything Oscar desperately needs, it’s to get rid of its showstopping (i.e., funstopping) song-and-dance numbers. No disrespect to our gay brothers and sisters, but perhaps they can be persuaded to watch even without those excruciating Broadway interludes. And if there were as many gay folks in the country as Oscar seems to think, then gay-themed movies (Brokeback Mountain, Milk, Batman and Robin) would do a lot better at the box office.
- If you can’t de-gayify, Simonize. But if we must have musical numbers, get Simon Cowell to give a quick analysis of each one. Unlike Oscar, he still gets stellar ratings. Which leads me to:
- American Idol-ize. Oscar is about as responsive to the public as the IRS. Why not invite viewers to send in their thoughts about the gowns, the groaners, and the gassiness and run the best comments as a ticker? Ask people to vote on each award as the nominees are being named, and run the (nonbinding, unofficial, but interesting) results during the acceptance speeches. And how about giving the audience their choice of camera angle? Push a button and you’re backstage. Or better yet, at the smoking area or the bar.
- Liven up the death reel. Instead of a somber background dirge, how about something with a little pep — like La Cucaracha or the Cantina Band theme from Star Wars? New Orleans has it right: Somebody died. Let’s party!
- Kick the A/V nerds out of the party. Oscars are for the beautiful. I’ll be generous and say the screenwriters can stay, along with the Best Song nominees, the actors, the directors, and the producers. But banish all technical awards to a separate night. As for the television rights, I’m sure C-SPAN would be interested.
- McDonald’s Cam. It is said that after the Oscars, limos full of starved starlets pull up to the nearest McDonald’s so the pretty young things inside can refuel quickly behind their darkened windows before bustling off to the parties, where no one wants to be photographed eating. How much fun would it be to see what Mickey D’s man at the drive-up window sees?
- Mike Jack. You could only get away with this once, but I’m just gonna say it: Find a way to plant a hidden microphone on Jack Nicholson.