Monday, January 18, 2010

Oscars' big gamble: how it could work (or not)

The popularity of the Academy Awards (Oscars) is measured primarily through the ratings of its awards telecast. These numbers for the 80th Oscars in 2007 hit an all-time low with 32 million. Last year, Hugh Jackman's appearance pushed that up to 36.3 million. But the writing has been on the wall for the Academy - less people want to watch their show and by implication believe in the significance of the Oscars. Worse, ABC won't pay as much for broadcast rights if they can't get advertisers to cough up money because of the shrinking audience.

There are several reasons for this decline in viewers - and this year the Academy is tackling one of those reasons.

First, as the US increasingly becomes a celebrity obsessed culture - the Red Carpet telecasts attract a steadily growing audience. This is where you get to see who dressed up in what and who is draped on whose arm. Once this celeb-gazing is over, people are likely to switch off their TV because they are either too exhausted or they have had their fix of the stars already. The Academy actually embraced the red carpet a few years ago by selling VIP access to ABC and becoming part of the circus. If you can't beat them, you join them.

Second, there are just way too many awards shows in the US. Granted all of them lead up to the climactic Oscars, but the quantity dilutes the Academy Awards.

Lastly, the Academy tries to reward smaller, arty flicks (ostensibly because the box office has already rewarded the blockbusters). This results in the fact that the majority of Oscars' potential audience hasn't seen most of the nominated movies. Thus disenfranchised, they tend to stay away from the ceremony. (It's like expecting an Indian to watch a tri-series cricket final in which India doesn't feature).

Last year the Academy announced a bold new change to the way they go about looking for their Best Picture in a bid to change this last factor. Here is how it works.

The Academy now nominates TEN instead of five Best Pictures. The pool is now bigger. Because there are ten nominees and the Academy used employs a First Past the Post voting sytem, the FIRST nominee that scores 11% of the vote during counting would win. (It doesn't matter if some other movie gets to a majority later on - by then the game is over). This has also been changed but more on that later.

So how does this make the Oscars more accessible to viewers? There are two ways this is supposed to help.

By expanding the pool, the Academy is encouraging its voters to include popular flicks - movies that made money because they were exciting to watch and reached out to a large audience. Movies like 2012 are still not likely to be nominated in this category, but a widely watched groundbreaking flick like Avatar will likely make the grade. With just five slots, Avatar's nomination would have been unlikely (the Academy still gets brickbats for ignoring The Dark Knight in its nominations in 2008).

At the outset this strategy makes sense. The most widely watched Oscar telecast was in 1998 when a whopping 55 million viewers tuned in. The reason? The widespread nominations for history's most biggest grossing flick: Titanic. But there are some problems.

If blockbusters make their way into the big picture nominations but regularly lose to the smaller movies - as they always have, viewers will develop ennui and tune off once again. In this case the ten nominees strategy will have to be mothballed. A number of people are expecting this to happen. The wider nomination slots are an experiment at best - but because the Academy is willing to try and take risks, its something worth supporting while it runs.

Here is where the second variable introduced by the new change comes in. Because of the First Past the Post voting system used by the Academy in the past, a movie could win Best Picture simply because it got the MOST early votes. In other words, if it hit its winning post of 11% of the total Best Picture votes before any other film does, it would win. The Academy has sanely enough followed its widening of the pool with an instant run off system. Its a bit complicated but it makes this race unpredictable. Heck if most Academy voters don't understand how this works, how will the punters?

This element of risk is what the Academy is banking on when it comes to bigger pictures holding their own against smaller nominees. There is some criticism of this voting strategy because it is inherently unfair to a film that would end up with majority votes had all votes been counted. But as it stands, it has the potential to really carve up predictions and make the Oscars unpredictable more so than ever before.

If the unpredictability manages to favor a few films that mainstream audiences are interested in, then it stands to change the industry itself. The gloss of Oscar buzz that draws so many big names to do smaller films will lose a bit of its sheen. That changes movie making dynamics (although an analysis of that is too involved to include in this post).

I'm not overtly worried about this unpredictability favoring bigger films: there is no such thing as a 'small' film anymore. Most films that prioritize Art over Commerce (and not that the other way is diabolical or anything - after all bills have to paid) are big studio projects at best and vanity projects at worst. Sure a small film will make its way into the nominations once in a while - but the mounting costs of running Oscar campaigns puts small budget flicks at a distinct disadvantage.

So what are the possibilities here? There are four permutations of the following: (1) Ratings are up or (2) Ratings are indifferent or down and (a) Everyone is happy with the Best Picture selection or (b) There is a hue and cry over the Best Picture selection.

If you look at the percentages, the Academy loses in the short term only if ratings don't improve. In every other case, they can claim triumph or claim the high ground.

Sure there will be arguments over 'dilution' of the prestige - which in my opinion are hokey: there isn't much prestige in a circus act masquerading as an opera. I see the Academy Awards as meta entertainment. If you perceive it as anything but, you might be missing the point.


Anonymous said...

Not to dilute your work here Aspi, great work and a lot of research. But, most people on half of the coast switch it off because it is Sunday late night (school night/work night). Maybe if it was a Saturday they would have a better viewership. Instead of all else maybe Oscars can just try to switch to a better night and see if it works.

Unknown said...

Anon, good point. But the alternatives are worse (I think). Friday and Saturday nights get the fewest audiences on TV. And other nights which do get larger audiences only do so for smaller shows (you couldn't find a large block to accommodate Oscars on a week night).

Oscar also doesn't DVR well so that is not an option you can rely on (plus NBC would hate it :))

So Sunday ends up being default night for a lot of (long) shows. But you are right - if this problem could be solved, we might get better viewership.

Anonymous said...

I do not like disagreeing with you Aspi,..but I think the baby boomers are finally home Saturday night after 8pm or maybe 9pm.
i think you will be highly surprised how many people, call it recession or receding hairline spend Saturday night in their living room in front of TV..I thought that was the reason SNL was catching more audience as per NBC for the past year.

Unknown said...

Anon, disagreeing is perfectly fine - feel free to do it.

I think baby boomers are past their due date for being a target audience for a lot of advertisers. If I was trying to sell product during the Oscars I'd want to sell to 18-45 year olds, possibly lower. So the challenge is to find that audience. I'm not sure Saturday or Friday would work for those viewers.

On the other hand I've haven't looked at demographic trends lately. I have the feeling that if the Oscars could get Kim Kardashian to host the red carpet, they'd get a whole different audience.

Anonymous said...

Kim I doubt, but Paris Hilton maybe available. Kim is too busy with the chefs for now.

Mind Rush said...

Good to know but...This is too complicated...I have a headache already! I want to watch a short, snazzy award presentation, and enjoy the red carpet poses more.
Anon, hillarious comments about baby boomers!

musical said...

I find award ceremonies very boring, unless there is a George Clooney, Matt Damon or M. Night Shyamalan sighting involved ;). Also, i am rarely home before 9:00 PM, most of the days, including weekends, so i invariably end up missing most of these awards. Btw, i though Oscars were broadcast by ABC and Globes by NBC. Is it going to be NBC this year?

What's your take on the whole NBC late night fiasco?

Bolly boy said...

someone should put together a TV show which is a highlights type edited award show. And Bollywood needs to follow suit.

Anonymous said...

men, money n NBC...need Drift dristi-kone!

Unknown said...

Mind Rush, you are the aam junta here. The damn thing is like running a marathon.

Bolly Boy, interesting idea - I've tried to think of how that would work. But I can't. You have to have this live otherwise it doesn't work!

musical, my bad. Thx for pointing that out - I corrected the post. Have been following the late night drama. But what I really want to get my hands on the late night show ratings. How many people actually watch this versus Tivo it? How much ad money are we talking about here? Seems a bit crazy.

Sunny Verma said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TwitofGoodTimes said...

Nominate 3 Idiots...guaranteed audience in India...50 million +.....:-)

Anonymous said...

try this:
Unfortunately, here it is still the sports that will take over any another event viewership. But, I believe it is called Neielsen's rating, you can look it up for the late night data too.

Unknown said...

Sam good idea. Wonder how much money the affiliates made when Slumdog was nominated. And that wasn't even an Indian film in a production sense.

Anon, thx for the link. Right about Nielsens but they sell their ratings so I'm not expecting to find them somewhere convenient.

Also not sure why people are still stuck on share rather than # of viewers. Don't understand that. If you look at that list, Seinfeld and more so Home Improvement used to beat some of those # of viewers numbers regularly.