It's been more than 45 years since the Oscars ceremony lasted for less than three hours. Is it any wonder that the audience numbers for Hollywood's annual self-congratulatory gala are plummeting?
This year, just 26.5 million people tuned in to watch. That's by far the lowest total in modern history. And the show was, for some reason, still three hours and 53 minutes long. No wonder people tune out.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences clearly knows it needs to change if it wants to maintain the viability of the entertainment industry's longest running awards show. So on Wednesday, the Academy recognized the obvious conclusion that had somehow escaped its board for years: four-hour slogfests celebrating largely unknown films and Hollywood's politics aren't terribly entertaining. From now on, the Academy pledged, the show wouldn't run any longer than your average Lord of the Rings film.
"We have heard from many of you about improvements needed to keep the Oscars and our Academy relevant in a changing world," the Academy board wrote in a letter to its members. "We are committed to producing an entertaining show in three hours, delivering a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide. To award all 24 categories," the letter continued, "we will present select categories live, in the Dolby Theatre, during commercial breaks[.]" The presentations would be then quickly edited to air later in the same broadcast.
The biggest surprise in this statement is that they hand out only 24 Oscars during the broadcast. In a typical marathon show, it feels more like 240. Why does it take nearly four hours to hand out 24 awards? Assuming 44 minutes per hour of broadcast time after commercials, that would still allow 5.5 minutes per category in a three-hour broadcast. Trimming just a minute off of each presentation would allow for an extra eight minutes for musical numbers or presentations each hour.
Really, how long does it take to read five to 10 names, show a few short clips for select categories, open an envelope, and announce the winner? Two minutes for most categories? Maybe three or four for the acting awards? Why can't this all be done more quickly?
This brings us to the real problem with the Oscars shows, both in terms of length and entertainment: the speeches. While there is technically a 45-second limit on these speeches, in many cases, the winners go on forever, seemingly unmindful of the difference between an acceptance speech and the end credits to a film, even when the speech is otherwise innocuous.
There are, of course, memorable and important Oscars speeches. Frances McDormand's Best Actress acceptance speech at this year's ceremony, for instance, had everyone talking about "inclusion riders." But let's be honest: For every barnstormer of a speech, there are a dozen more given by people you've never heard of, thanking people you don't care about. Even most of the Oscar-winning celebrities we all know give snoozer speeches.
And not every political speech for a "cause" is greeted warmly by all or even most viewers. Plenty of us find speeches like McDormand's aggravating. Too often, the recipients forego gratitude to the Academy and to the audiences that buy their product, instead indulging themselves in an opportunity to lecture the audience on what they should think. It makes the awards show as entertaining as a four-hour political rally, because it has been a four-hour political rally for a very long time. Simply turning the show into a three-hour political rally won't fix its broken entertainment value.
And so, if the Academy truly wants to fix the Oscars, the board and the producers should eliminate the speeches altogether, both before and after the envelope opening. Meet the winners on stage, present them with their trophies, and then walk them backstage to give their remarks to the press. That might free up enough time to stage a couple of musical numbers an hour, which would be — what's the word for it again? — entertaining. That way, people who want to see their favorite entertainers can enjoy a fast-moving presentation without getting lectured into catalepsy. Heck, the show might even come in under two hours.
This is actually akin to how it used to be. While the Oscars haven't clocked in under three hours since 1973 (two hours and 38 minutes), from 1929 to 1973, there were 45 ceremonies, and only two topped three hours. Twenty-one of them were less than two hours — and the first, in 1929, was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it 15 minutes! (Granted, the Oscars weren't televised until 1950, but still ...)
Surely the show's producers wouldn't embrace the missed advertising revenue of a shorter show — but really, isn't the entertainment industry already making enough money off its audience? The least they could do is give us a swift, pleasurable, and non-political awards show.