After Seth MacFarlane’s polarizing performance as this year’s Oscars host, producers are calling on a reassuring presence for the 2014 telecast, naming Ellen DeGeneres emcee of Hollywood’s biggest night.
DeGeneres, a syndicated talk-show personality with a huge following, also hosted the Academy Awards in 2007. She’s expected to bring a steadying hand to a telecast that faced heavy criticism in 2013. Though total viewership reached its highest point since 2010, MacFarlane drew a backlash from those who said that bits such as a parody song titled “We Saw Your Boobs” were offensive.
The selection of the openly gay DeGeneres will no doubt register as a sign of progress at a time when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is pushing for greater diversity. Earlier this week the group elected its first-ever African American board president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. The deal for DeGeneres is believed to have come together quickly in recent days, though it is unclear how much Boone Isaacs was involved in the decision.
DeGeneres broke the news Friday morning to her millions of Twitter followers. “It’s official,” she wrote. “I’m hosting the Oscars! I’d like to thank The Academy, my wife Portia and, oh dear, there goes the orchestra.”
She later quipped in a release from the motion picture academy that “I am so excited to be hosting the Oscars for the second time. You know what they say — the third time’s the charm,” echoing a joke she made in the 2007 telecast in which she told eight-time nominee Peter O’Toole that “third time’s the charm.”
ABC will telecast the Oscars on March 2 from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
This year’s Oscars producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who also oversaw the controversial 2013 show, praised DeGeneres’ onscreen persona in a statement. “There are few stars today who have Ellen’s gift for comedy with her great warmth and humanity.”
In 2007, DeGeneres also was brought in as a stabilizing presence after a provocative telecast the prior year by Jon Stewart. Her red-suited act gave the evening an informal feel — she took a page from her talk-show playbook as she wandered the aisles bantering with Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood. Television critic Tom Shales of the Washington Post called her turn “crisp and unpretentious.”
But to some, DeGeneres failed to bring much edge or surprise. A Variety review called her a “bland guide” for the night’s festivities. DeGeneres was lauded more strongly for her performance at the Emmys in 2001 shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, with many praising her delicate handling of a difficult moment.
Like her reviews, DeGeneres’ Oscar ratings were middle-of-the-road; with 39.9 million viewers, the 2007 Oscars rated exactly fifth in total viewers among the last 10 years. She was aided by the multiple wins for Scorsese’s “The Departed,” one of the bigger blockbusters to win best picture in recent years. Last year’s MacFarlane-led telecast brought in 40.3 million viewers.
DeGeneres is likely to get a boost from a strong social-media presence that has developed since her last stint. With 21 million Twitter followers, she is among the most popular personalities on the site. She also has a highly watched channel on YouTube.
In choosing DeGeneres, the academy would also seem to have avoided the drama that ensued two years ago when it went with the unconventional choice of film producer Brett Ratner for its telecast and then Eddie Murphy as host. The move blew up when Ratner was forced to exit the show after insensitive comments in a radio interview. Murphy quickly followed suit, prompting new producer Brian Grazer to tap the veteran Billy Crystal.
Unlike some other recent hosts such as Anne Hathaway and James Franco, DeGeneres has not been a big-screen mainstay. But her voice does anchor “Finding Dory,” the “Finding Nemo” sequel that ABC sister company Pixar will release in 2015.
For producers and network ABC, DeGeneres will also bring another key asset: a daily presence on television that will allow her to promote the show and welcome guests from Oscar-nominated films.
“Pre-Oscar show publicity has become increasingly important and necessary in recent years as competition for viewers has escalated. A host’s ability and willingness to participate in these opportunities is essential in that effort to boost ratings,” said Tony Angellotti, a veteran publicity executive and member of the academy.
Though many in Hollywood say they believe the choice of DeGeneres is also a direct response to the criticism heaped upon last year’s show, veteran Oscar producer and director Don Mischer disagrees.
“I really doubt that’s the motivation,” he said. “Having been in the producer’s shoes many times, you are primarily looking for someone you have confidence in, someone that can roll with the punches, is quick on their feet, is likable and has a track record for live performance. She’s done it all and has done it well. I doubt there was any other reason for choosing Ellen.”
Still, brevity may not be on the agenda. At 3 hours and 51 minutes, the last DeGeneres-hosted Oscars was the longest of the last 13 years.
Historically, return hosts have tended to do well. Billy Crystal added to his audience in each of the first five times he hosted, and Chevy Chase added 5% to his audience on his second go-round back in 1988. But most sophomore hosts who do well tend to take the stage in successive years. When Jon Stewart returned in 2008 after taking a year off (for DeGeneres), numbers plummeted by nearly 20%.
Mischer recalls that he was the first producer to hire DeGeneres for a live TV gig — co-host of the 1994 Emmys telecast. At the time it was a decision that was much criticized by his peers in the industry because the sitcom she was then headlining had only aired six times when producers approached her for the job. (She co-hosted the telecast with “Home Improvement’s” Patricia Richardson.)
“I took a lot of flack from people in our industry. They said, ‘Ellen has only had six shows in prime-time television and she gets to be the co-host?’” recalled Mischer. “Monday after the show, nobody asked me that question again. She was wonderful. She brought a spark and a light to it.”