I’m the king of the world!
— James Cameron on accepting the 1998 Best Director Oscar for Titanic (1997)
Nothing epitomizes the insularity, vanity, and self-regard of the entertainment industry like awards shows. The Oscar ceremony in particular reached its highwater mark in terms of popularity some twenty years ago on 23 March 1998 when an audience of 55.25 million Americans and an estimated one billion people worldwide tuned in to watch Titanic win 11 Academy Awards, tying it for the most golden statuettes ever by one film with Ben-Hur (1959).
The Oscar telecast exceeded the 50-million threshold in the United States only one other time on 11 April 1983 when 53.2 million viewers watched Gandhi (1982) garner Best Picture, as the Academy Awards show was then well ensconced behind the Super Bowl as American television’s annual one-two punch of event programming throughout the final quarter of the 20th century. Suffice it to say that event TV is no longer what it used to be.
Rather than a harbinger of bigger and better things to come, the Titanic telecast was in retrospect the last hurrah of the nearly century-long reign of the movies at the apex of the entertainment industry. The first Academy Awards ceremony took place on 16 May 1929 and a year later live radio coverage began. TV was introduced to the proceedings on 19 March 1953 in Oscar’s 25th year, coinciding perfectly with what then-NBC programming chief, Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver, called his latest scheduling innovation, the television spectacular.
Weaver had moved to NBC in 1949 from the advertising industry where he had been a successful executive at Young & Rubicam since 1935. Soon he emerged as American TV’s preeminent programmer during the 1950s, pioneering numerous promotional tactics such as the strategic use of prime-time special events like the Academy Awards in order to attract millions of new viewers to his fledgling network.
The First Televised Oscars Opening Featuring Host, Bob Hope, Delivering Contemporaneous Quips about Movies and TV (7:45)
The Oscars proved to be a win-win marketing extravaganza for television as well as motion pictures signaling the start of a budding relationship between what was then two separate entertainment sectors. By the time of the 70th annual Academy Awards ceremony in 1998, the Digital Era had already started, adoption of the Internet was growing quickly among the general public, and the firewall between TV and film was fading fast.
Moreover, Titanic’s writer, director, co-producer, and co-editor, James Cameron, achieved the rare feat that evening of setting records at both the Academy Awards and the box office. Cameron now ranks among the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood history. His eight motion pictures so far have generated an estimated $2 billion in North America and $6 billion worldwide. He is currently credited with the two top-grossing movies ever with Avatar (2009) at $2.8 billion along with Titanic at $2.2 billion.
James Cameron apparently felt a jolt of irrational confidence at the 1998 Oscars when he channeled his creation, Jack Dawson, by crowing, ‘I’m the king of the world!’ upon winning the Academy Award for Best Directing. He identified closely with Titanic’s protagonist, a rank outsider and third-class passenger. Cameron’s 20-year career up to that point had been an improbable journey for a Canadian foreign national and college dropout who became a largely self-taught storyteller of blockbuster movies and visual effects wizard.
James Cameron Winning the Oscar for Directing (3:05)
Tossing false modesty to the wind, Cameron’s unguarded outburst publicly confirmed his well-earned reputation as a megalomaniac in an industry where celebrity egotism had long been accepted as an occupational hazard. Still, a distaste for Hollywood hubris alone doesn’t begin to explain why public interest in the Oscars has plummeted so precipitously in the 21st century. One obvious reason is the fact that televised awards shows have long since lost their specialness for audiences all around the world.
During 2018, for example, the awards season has ballooned into a nearly year-round series of TV-sponsored pseudo-events that began with the 29th PGA (Producers Guild of America) Awards on January 5 and culminates with the 44th People’s Choice Awards on November 11. In between, viewers are treated to a nonstop glut of awards programming that includes the 75th Golden Globes on January 7, the 80th DGA (Directors Guild of America) Awards on January 10, the 23rd Critics’ Choice Awards on January 11, the 24th SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Awards on January 21, the 60th Grammys (Recording Academy) on January 28, the 70th WGA (Writers Guild) Awards on February 11, the 71st BAFTA Film (British Academy of Film Arts) Awards on February 18, the 33rd Film Independent Spirit Awards on March 3, the 90th Oscars (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) on March 4, the 63rd BAFTA TV (British Academy of Television Arts) Awards on May 3, the 77th George Foster Peabody Awards on May 19, the 29th Billboard Music Awards on May 20, the 72nd Tonys (Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Broadway Theatre) on June 10, the 18th BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards on June 24, the 35th MTV Video Music Awards on August 20, the 69th Primetime Emmys (Academy of Television Arts and Sciences) on September 17, and the 52nd Country Music Association Awards on November 7.
An interminable sense of awards show fatigue has stricken viewers to the degree that the 2018 Academy Awards for instance lost 19% of its audience from the previous year and 39% from five years earlier, causing it to plummet to an all-time low of 26.6 million people in the United States and approximately 300 million globally (O’Connell). Similarly, TV viewership for awards shows in general have dropped across the board, ranging this year from minus-24% for the Grammys (down to 19.8 million) to minus-5% for the Golden Globes (19 million) (‘Oscar Scorecard’).
Much more is going on than this seemingly endless proliferation of awards shows, however. These types of programs have grown increasingly anachronistic in terms of business and industry as well as art and culture. The two main reasons for televising award shows has always been to market product and recognize artistic merit for whatever entertainment sector happens to be hosting the respective television event.
Being the first and still the most watched and discussed awards show, the Oscars established the template on which this ever-expanding reality-TV subgenre functions. Even back in the 1950s, it was designed as a kind of proto-infomercial replete with product placements in the form of stars and film clips that were intended to stimulate the careers of creative newcomers and veterans alike as well as enhance box-office revenues for the winning movies.
The Academy Awards specifically have remained mostly unchanged for more than half-a-century congealing into a stodgy three-plus hour ritualized endurance test comprised of awkward red-carpet chitchat, canned dialogue read off of teleprompters by performers costumed in designer gowns, jewelry, and tuxedos, interspersed with an endless barrage of commercial breaks. Similar conventions are evident in all the awards shows to one degree or another.
Despite what everyone acknowledges is a hackneyed and tedious format, only minor revisions have ever been made once the formula was adapted to other awards shows. This subgenre is stuck in the past, clinging reflexively to outdated assumptions that these telecasts are still essential to product profitability and serve to validate artistic achievement. Talent too willingly show up to share the spotlight, eagerly putting themselves on full display for the cameras as in the star-studded selfie engineered by host, Ellen DeGeneres, at the 2014 Oscars.
Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar Selfie Was Retweeted a Record-Setting 3.4 Million Times (1:55)
Probably the most obvious change to any awards show over the last decade was the instituting of the so-called ‘Dark Knight rule’ at the 2010 Academy Awards. Christopher Nolan’s superhero blockbuster, The Dark Knight (2008), was both a box-office and critical success, but it was predictably snubbed when the 2009 Oscar nominations were announced because it belonged to what AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) considers one of its less serious, more entertainment-oriented genres targeted towards younger audiences.
Ratings for the Oscar telecasts had been dropping throughout the 21st century, but for some reason AMPAS’s leadership fixated on The Dark Knight (2008), deciding that the way to increase TV viewer interest was to revert back to the pre-1944 practice of selecting 10 Best Picture films in the hopes of corralling more popular audience-friendly nominees. Rather than having the desired effect, though, the 10-picture experiment resulted in even more independent art films and studio-made star vehicles with social messages being nominated.
Other incremental measures have also been hastily put into place, such as the 2011 requirement that all subsequent Best Picture nominees must amass at least 5% of all first-place votes as a sign of strong support, leaving audiences even more indifferent about the subsequent nominees and increasingly confused as to why there are sometimes eight outstanding film contenders (as in 2015 and 2016) and other times nine (as in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2018).
The Oscars are thus a representative example of how the powers that be in these professional organizations and guilds tweak their arcane rules in a misguided attempt to stay connected to their respective fan bases and keep up with the times. In effect, these smallish internal rule changes are merely the manifestation of the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. For the most part, this type of reactive posture has mostly exacerbated the situation, compounded by the occasionally unforced error or wince-worthy incident.
‘Consider that the most memorable Oscar moment of the past decade was the train wreck that compromised the dignity of two venerable movie starts [Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway] and messed with the feelings of two excellent young filmmakers [Barry Jenkins of Moonlight and Damien Chazelle of La La Land],’ writes New York Times film critic A.O. Scott (Scott and Dargis). This bewildering mishap simply undercuts the credibility and calls into question the relevancy of these kinds of programs in the 21st century.
The Best Picture Mix-up at the 2017 Oscars (7:15)
Host Jimmy Kimmel aptly put the Moonlight/La La Land blunder into perspective during his final remarks of the telecast by reminding everyone, ‘Let’s remember, it’s just an awards show.’ All the pomp and circumstance of these 20th century televised creations no longer work in the ways that they once did between the 1950s and the 1990s. For instance, the so-called Oscar bump for Academy Award-winning films has shrunk from an estimated 50 to 75% of total box-office revenues during the last century to less than 10% to 25% at best over the last two decades, even when including all the ancillary income that is derived from the newer digital distribution platforms (‘Academy Awards Best Picture Nominees and Grosses’).
During the last five years, Moonlight demonstrated the largest bump at 25.3%, although the film only grossed a tepid $27.85 million overall, marking it as the lowest Best Picture box-office performer ever. In comparison, the Oscar lift for Twelve Years a Slave was 12.6% in 2014; Birdman 12% in 2015; Spotlight 15.1% in 2016; and Shape of Water 9.2% so far in 2018. In fact, the only Best Picture winner over the last decade to rank within the top-20 earners for the year was The King’s Speech (2010), which barely made it into that profitable grouping at number 18 in 2010 (‘Academy Awards Best Picture Nominees and Grosses’).
Moreover, the motion picture business is merely the most extreme example in the entire entertainment industry of the schizophrenia that exists between the sort of product that gets greenlit on a daily basis and the types of works that are usually nominated for year-end awards. Instead of staying true to the nature of their businesses and the preferences of their target audiences, these professional organizations and guilds attempt to put their best feet forward with nominees that exhibit some subjective mixture of originality, artistic vision, and quality of execution that hopefully dovetails with a healthy dose of fan interest and excitement. Most often these days audience affection or even awareness goes missing, however, as was the point of host Chris Rock’s comic set piece at the 2016 Oscars.
Chris Rock Goes to Compton to Talk Movies (3:41)
In 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite movement first surfaced beyond AMPAS when a handful of high-profile black actors and directors such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee called attention to the longstanding practice of people of color being overlooked by Academy Award voters. Likewise, the grassroots #TimesUp and #MeToo initiatives also reached a public tipping point in the fall of 2017, exposing the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment throughout the entertainment industry as well as the culture writ large.
The response from AMPAS’s governing board over the past three years has been to proactively recruit more people of color and women to its ranks. As with any bureaucratic change, though, progress is slow as the Academy’s makeup still remains approximately 85% white and 70% male. It goes without saying that the Oscar selection process and ceremony still need a wholesale overhaul. The same can also be said about all the other awards shows in the music, television, and theatre sectors of the entertainment industry.
Besides the aforementioned oversaturation of this kind of programming as well as their antiquated three-plus-hour-long presentational format and passé displays of wealth, celebrity, and privilege, awards shows need to be brought more in line with the spirit and composition of audiences in the 21st century. The baby steps towards diversity have to be accelerated to more closely mirror the actual fans for these popular arts. Awards shows need to be reconceived and rebranded with millennials (born between 1984 and 2002) and the iGeneration (2003 to the present) in mind as well as babyboomers (1946 to 1964) and Gen-Xers (1965 to 1983) who currently comprise the majority of AMPAS and other such organizational memberships.
One solution would be just to eliminate all awards shows altogether, but the fact is these programs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. ABC is signed up to telecast the Oscars through 2028; CBS is committed to presenting the Grammys through 2026; NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox are set to host the Emmys on a rotating basis through 2026; and all the other awards shows enjoy similar contractual agreements with various networks as a result of the 24/7 continuousness of television coupled with the ongoing relentless demand of filling air time across 650-plus channels in North America alone.
Taking a final look at the Oscars as a bellwether, viewers over-50 have fallen 32% over the last five years, but audiences under-50 have decreased a whopping 47% (O’Connell). No sector of the entertainment industry beginning with the movies needs its awards shows to kick start its profit performance anymore. There are far more effective and less costly marketing strategies available today than staging yet another overproduced cross between a cotillion and a multi-hour-long American Idol-type finale for the rich and famous.
When it comes to selecting the ‘best of’ in any awards show category, most everyone in 2018 recognizes it’s a dubious exercise. Both Moonlight and La La Land are laudable achievements, but does anyone beyond the most fervent enthusiasts believe that one of these films is a better realized version of what its creators intended than the other? Does it matter? What percentage of the audience was truly invested in watching Shape of Water christened Best Picture in 2018? It too is an artful movie but how many people felt left out or couldn’t care less by the choice? A lot. There are just too many other worthwhile visual narratives for people to watch, many of which these days are created for TV.
So what’s left for awards shows to become? One option might be for professional memberships to just select a short list of multiple winners for each of their major categories, instead of continuing with these internecine contests whereby companies regularly spend millions of dollars on elaborate campaigns, which is the hidden secret that probably determines who eventually wins or loses more than anything. Why should the charade of choosing just ‘one best of’ continue? Most fans, critics, and scholars already take for granted that most awards shows have almost always got it wrong in the past anyway.
Awards shows could be redesigned to serve as the culmination of an ongoing interactive social networking relationship that is extended and cultivated throughout the year rather than existing merely as one-off special events. The programs themselves could evolve into being more of an annual opportunity for each sector of the entertainment industry to update its brand and celebrate a shared experience with its target audience. Any lingering tendencies towards exclusivity could be replaced by a genuine attempt to reach out and connect with fans as integral contributors in the artistic enterprise.
Awards shows could thus recognize the widest and most diverse spectrum of meritorious work from within its ranks, making every effort to address the passions of as many of its core patrons as possible. Above all else, these programs in the future need to be brought down to earth and remodeled as being one albeit central component in a larger social mediated process between creative communities and their target audiences if they are to have any chance of enduring long term—never mind flourishing—into the 21st century.
‘Academy Awards Best Picture Nominees and Grosses,’ Box Office Mojo. 1978 to 2017 at http://www.boxofficemojo.com/oscar/.
‘Oscar Scorecard: Highs, Lows and Oddities,’ Hollywood Reporter. 7 March 2018: 22.
O’Connell, Michael. ‘Awards Fatigue? Ratings Down but Not Out,’ Hollywood Reporter. 4 April 2018: 20.
Scott, A.O., and Manohla Dargis. ‘Dear Film Industry: We Have Thoughts,’ New York Times. 6 May 2018: AR34.
Gary R. Edgerton is Professor of Creative Media and Entertainment at Butler University. He has published twelve books and more than eighty-five essays on a variety of television, film and culture topics in a wide assortment of books, scholarly journals, and encyclopedias. He also coedits the Journal of Popular Film and Television.