Oscars Foundering in Era of Niches

"Big Picture" columnist Patrick Goldstein can be e-mailed at patrick.goldstein

The hissing you hear is the air going out of the Oscars’ balloon.

The usual aura of Academy Award anticipation dissipated weeks ago. Wherever I went last week, the talk was about how bad the ratings would be.

Conventional wisdom holds that the academy has become infatuated with celebrating low-budget art films that don’t connect with mainstream America. This year’s best picture nominees, while all having turned a tidy profit, are clearly not big crowd pleasers.


But the problem with the Oscars is more deeply rooted than just public lack of interest in the nominees. Ratings are crumbling for the Oscars, and award shows in general, because the Era of the Mass Event is drawing to a close.

With the exception of the Super Bowl, which seems immune to anything short of a civil war, even the biggest sports and show biz events find their ratings in decline.

Last fall, the World Series had its lowest TV ratings of all time, dropping 30% from the 2004 Series. Last year’s NBA playoffs ratings reached near-record lows as well, down nearly 25% from 2004. The ratings for this year’s Grammy Awards were off 10%, with the show easily eclipsed by an “American Idol” installment that attracted nearly 12 million more viewers. Last month, the Winter Olympics, arguably the season’s ultimate sports awards-cast, had its lowest ratings in 20 years, down 37% from the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

We are now a nation of niches. There are still blockbuster movies, hit TV shows and top-selling CDs, but fewer events that capture the communal pop culture spirit. The action is elsewhere, with the country watching cable shows or reading blogs that play to a specific audience.

In the movie business, for example, many of the most profitable films in recent years haven’t been costly sequels, but low-budget comedies and horror films that could be cheaply marketed to a loyal fan base.

No one is sneezing at the profits from the “Harry Potter” series, which has grossed about $3.5 billion worldwide. But the most envied business model in Hollywood is the one at Lionsgate Films, whose two “Saw” horror movies, made for a combined cost of $6 million, have racked up $142 million in domestic box office alone.

Talk about the power of niches. For all their accolades, none of this year’s best picture nominees -- “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Crash,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Munich” -- has made as much money as “Saw II.” The biggest hit is “Brokeback Mountain,” with just over $75 million so far.

There is another, even more radical shift in today’s pop culture that is helping to undermine the Oscars and other tradition-bound award shows. For years, the Oscars have mattered because the awards served as a barometer of cultural heft. Just the name alone -- the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- has the air of high-minded authority.

Millions of moviegoers who would’ve been wary of seeing a challenging film like 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy” or 1999’s “American Beauty” caved in and plunked their money down, soothed by the academy’s best picture badge of distinction.

But this elite, top-down culture is being supplanted by a raucous, participatory bottom-up culture in which amateur entertainment has more appeal than critically endorsed skill and expertise.

The most obvious example is “American Idol,” which has tested its ratings clout against the Grammys and the Winter Olympics, easily trouncing its competition.

In top-down culture, subtlety and sophistication rule. But like so much of today’s bottom-up culture, “American Idol” is far more about aspiration than art. It is a musical kissing cousin of MTV’s “The Real World,” allowing us to wallow in its subjects’ depressingly banal dreams and show biz ambitions.

It’s telling that “Idol” devotes much of its airtime to interviews in which contestants rhapsodize about their yearnings for stardom, excitedly recalling their first visit to Hollywood Boulevard or their first trip down a paparazzi-strewn red carpet.

Even though the show, for me, is little more than a tedious night at a karaoke bar, its contestants offering second-rate renditions of familiar pop fluff, it has captured the imagination of its young, largely female audience. They don’t need any gray-bearded critics to tell them what they like -- they prefer creating their own stars.

Last summer, during the height of Tom Cruise’s sofa-jumping meltdown, I asked a friend’s 11-year-old daughter her opinion of Cruise. She said, forget about him. “Do you know [“American Idol” contestant] Bo Bice? He’s much cooler.”

The era of the suffering artist is over, replaced by the insufferably self-confident wannabe. After a thoroughly forgettable rendition of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” the other night, singer Brenna Gethers was asked by Paula Abdul how she thought she did. “I think I did wonderful,” she said, full of assurance. “I think the audience loved it, and I think America loved it.”

The lone dissenting voice on the show is that of Simon Cowell, who with his British accent and disdain for his fellow judges’ slack standards, is a perfect symbol of the top-down culture. Scornful of mediocrity, he’s a voice of sanity on the show, often wearily lecturing contestants about their show biz delusions. Still, he seems to be fighting a losing battle, cast as a highbrow scold whose deflating opinions are regularly played for comic relief.

Our bottom-up culture puts little premium on subtle craft, not to mention expert opinion, whether it’s Olympic judges or academy members. Young people want to be a member of a group, encouraged by their peers.

Nowhere is this more evident than on, the wildly popular youth-culture website that has become the MTV for today’s Internet generation. Populated with about 35 million young people, it has become a hugely influential social networking vehicle, brimming with photo-strewn home pages and blogs, the aim being to amass as big a friends list as possible.

Rupert Murdoch paid $580 million in July for the site, which he hopes will give News Corp. a conduit to the increasingly hard-to-reach youth audience -- an audience that wouldn’t watch the Oscars on a bet.

Murdoch is the first mogul to grasp the magnitude of today’s elite vs. amateur divide. As he said in a speech last year: “Young people don’t want to rely on a Godlike figure from above to tell them what’s important.... They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it.”

The era when studios, networks and record companies were tastemakers is long gone. Ask kids today where good music comes from and they’ll say iTunes or MySpace, not Warner Bros. Records. The best brands are being built from the bottom up.

After once proclaiming that Yahoo would bring an assortment of sitcoms and talk shows to the Internet, Lloyd Braun, head of the firm’s media group, told the New York Times on Thursday that the company was shifting gears, having realized that the best way to prolong user stays on its site was to offer ways for them to create their own content.

Record labels are jumping on the fan-friendly MySpace bandwagon as well. As Interscope Records new media chief Courtney Holt told Wired recently: “This generation is growing up without ever having watched programmed media. They don’t think in terms of the album, and they don’t think in terms of the TV schedule.”

So if the Oscars look dated and irrelevant, they have plenty of company.

Although many conservative commentators, led by Michael Medved, have accused Hollywood and the Oscars of being out of touch with mainstream America for making left-leaning films, there is little evidence to back up this charge. In fact, if you put Medved’s favorite movies -- the ones he chose for his 2005 top-10 list -- up against the five Oscar best picture nominees, the Oscar pictures come out with a higher per-picture box office, averaging $46.5 million to $38 million for Medved’s choices.

Does that mean Medved is even more out of touch with America than Hollywood is? It’s more likely that, as a critic, he has just as much of a top-down view of the world as any academy member -- neither wants to put his stamp of approval on forgettable action pictures or dumb teen comedies. Does this mean the Oscars need to dump Jon Stewart for Ryan Seacrest?

I don’t think an “extreme makeover” is the solution. The Oscars, at least as long as the academy elders hold sway, are never going to stoop to conquer. But if the ratings keep sliding, the show will never have the influence it once had either. All great show biz institutions have their day in the sun. But the Oscars are in their twilight years, a fusty symbol of top-down entertainment in a frisky, MySpace world.

It isn’t hard to imagine a day when a kid spots an Oscar and says with a puzzled frown, “Geez, what on earth is that?”