The medium's message

Times Staff Writer

The Academy Awards ceremony is not only the biggest night for the world of cinema, it's also one of the most watched international television events, with an audiences touted at 1 billion (in fact it's much smaller). It's second only to the Super Bowl as a sure-fire ratings grabber year in, year out. And the Academy Awards feature much more interesting clothing.

The ceremony has been a major media event since its infancy -- a time of intimate banquets with just a handful of awards handed out and winners announced in the local papers the evening of the ceremony.

It has been covered by either radio or television for 74 of the past 75 years, although Oscar's role as a broadcasting pioneer is surprisingly overlooked. Yes, there were plenty of Oscars stories in the early days, but it was the rise of celebrity-centric outlets like People magazine in the 1970s and "Entertainment Tonight" in 1981 that saw the arrival of oversaturated coverage of moments such as Vanessa Redgrave's criticism of Israel, Jack Palance's push-ups, Billy Crystal's musical monologues at the start of recent telecasts, and so on. (That bright light is expected to be dimmed significantly this year, due to the conflict in Iraq.)

Still, there were plenty of significant milestones in Oscar history in the days when pictures were in black and white, and even when it was simply a radio event that was heard and not seen. As the academy prepares to celebrate its diamond anniversary, it's worth looking back at key broadcasting moments.

1930, the first radio broadcast

Angelenos got their first taste of Oscar on April 3, 1930, when KNX radio covered the second annual Academy Awards from the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel. If you think the Oscar telecast drags way into the evening now, in those early years the ceremony didn't take place until after the nominees and guests had dinner. That first radio broadcast -- which lasted an hour -- didn't begin until 10:30 p.m. From then on, radio covered the Oscars.

Though politics and entertainment can make strange bedfellows, that hasn't stopped politicians from participating in the Academy Awards. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first U.S. president to take part, opened the 13th ceremony on Feb. 27, 1941, addressing the nation and the crowd at the Biltmore Hotel's Biltmore Bowl with a six-minute direct-radio-line speech from the White House. Producer Walter Wanger, academy president, had invited FDR to Hollywood for the Oscars, but Roosevelt declined because of the world's bellicose political climate. FDR made the most of his time as the opening act, chatting up his Lend-Lease bill with England, thanking Hollywood for raising funds for defense and promoting the "American way of life" in its movies.

The following year, the Oscars again tapped a politician to open the ceremony. On Feb. 26, 1942 -- the first Oscar ceremony after America's entrance into World War II -- fans around the country listened on CBS Radio to hear Wendell Willkie. The unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate addressed the star-studded audience, thanking Hollywood for being "among the first to appreciate fully true American sentiment" and for "disclosing the vicious character of plotting and violence."

During World War II, the Oscar radiocast became a morale booster for the armed forces fighting in Europe, Africa and Asia. For the 16th annual Academy Awards on March 2, 1944, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Jack Benny emceed a radio broadcast sent specifically to the troops.

On March 19, 1953, the Academy Awards celebrated their 25th anniversary by entering the Television Age. NBC telecast the event from the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood with Bob Hope as host (Ronald Reagan was the announcer) and from the International Theatre in New York with host Conrad Nagel.

The academy had previously turned down network requests to buy the TV rights because the organization wanted to protect the industry's interests. But economic necessity led the academy to acquiesce. The major movie studios had refused to come up with their usual share of expenses to underwrite the evening. So if NBC-RCA hadn't bid $100,000 for the radio and TV rights, there wouldn't have been an Academy Awards broadcast that year.

Though technically clunky by today's standards, the telecast was a huge success; it scored the highest ratings in the five-year commercial history of television. And the following year, the NBC telecast drew 43 million viewers.

The Oscars were becoming a more ambitious event, and producers started coming up with ways to capitalize on the power of television. In 1955, Judy Garland was considered the best actress front-runner for her big comeback vehicle, "A Star Is Born." But she wasn't able to attend the March 30 event at the Pantages because she had given birth to her son, Joey, the day before. So NBC had to think fast -- how could the network capture Garland's reaction if she received a bundle of gold joy for "A Star Is Born"?

If Garland couldn't come to the Oscars, the Oscars would go to Garland. NBC built special scaffolding outside her room at Mount Sinai Hospital (now Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles) and had cameras ready to go live in case she won. But NBC's efforts were in vain; Grace Kelly ended up winning for "The Country Girl."

Live TV presented other challenges, although on April 6, 1959, it was one that's virtually unthinkable these days. Jerry Lewis was host that year, when the show ended 20 minutes early. Even the manic funnyman couldn't stretch the show that long, so NBC ended up putting in a sports filler.

Perennial Oscar host Bob Hope found himself in a predicament that couldn't be solved in time for the 35th annual awards. Frank Sinatra had to step in as host on April 8, 1963, because of a product conflict with the sponsors of the Academy Awards and Hope's own NBC TV specials. Hope had to watch the proceedings from his seat in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

That's where the show had moved two years earlier, after being in Los Angeles and Hollywood for more than 30 years. And that April 17, 1961, telecast marked the first time ABC took over the reins as broadcaster. It was estimated that 70 million people tuned in that evening and ABC continued to broadcast the Oscars for the next decade. It went back to NBC from 1971-75.

ABC has been the home of the Academy Awards since 1976 and is contracted to telecast the show through 2008.

Switch to color, then almost dark

After being telecast in black-and-white for 13 years, the Academy Awards entered the world of color on April 18, 1966. The following year, though, the Academy Awards literally came within moments of fading to black. It was almost not televised because of a strike involving the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists -- the guild that governs live television broadcasts. The academy was still planning to go ahead with the event on April 10, 1967, telecast or no telecast. But just three hours before the show, the strike was settled and the show went on without a hitch.

Two years later, on April 14, 1969, audiences got a glimpse of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the Oscars moved from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. It was also their last time on radio. By then, it had become a truly global event, with a 56-minute edited version beamed to 37 countries. The modern media moment had arrived ... and you know the rest.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction KNX microphone -- A photograph of a KNX microphone accompanying an article on the broadcast history of the Oscars in Sunday's Calendar was mistakenly credited as a file photograph. The photo was provided courtesy of KNX 1070 Newsradio. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday March 30, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction A photograph of a KNX microphone accompanying an article on the broadcast history of the Oscars last Sunday was mistakenly credited as a file photo. It is courtesy of KNX 1070 Newsradio.
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