Editorial: Can the Oscars be saved from themselves? Maybe

"Nomadland" director Chloe Zhao is shown backstage at the 93rd Academy Awards on April 251.
Chloe Zhao, the director of “Nomadland” and the first woman of color to win the best director Oscar, holds her statue backstage at the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25. She also won as a producer when “Nomadland” won best picture.

Just when the Oscar telecast embraced more diversity than ever before and held the promise of real drama — for the first time, artists of color had the chance to sweep every acting category and best director — the ratings cratered, setting a record low. The show was watched by 10.4 million people, less than half the number who tuned in last year.

Of course, the pandemic was partially to blame. Ratings for all the big TV awards shows declined in the last 12 months. And movie theaters were mostly closed for a year, delaying openings of some films, including a number of expected blockbusters, and funneling the rest to streaming services.

But the ratings for the Oscars have been on a downward slide for more than two decades. After the show attracted 55.2 million people in 1998, when “Titanic” won best picture, the Oscars’ viewership began sinking and hasn’t stopped. In that time, TV viewership has splintered, and Hollywood’s televised fete of self-congratulation no longer has the mystique to command masses of people to sit down and watch. Only the Super Bowl still has that. In broadcast TV these days, a viewership of 10 million is what passes for a massive audience.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may not need to worry about the financial implications of its ratings plunge — yet. Its deal with ABC runs through 2028 and reportedly could bring the organization up to $900 million more. But the trajectory is clear: The Oscars are losing viewers, and that trend shows no signs of reversing course.

So what is wrong with the Oscars show? Is it just a relic of a bygone TV era?

We’re not suggesting that the academy, which puts on the show, should disappear. In fact, we want to see it thrive as a promoter of filmmaking, a preserver of the history of that art and a developer of talent. And we want to see it exert influence on Hollywood to change, as it has itself changed by diversifying its membership to include more people of color and women. Nor should the Academy Awards go away. Filmmaking is one of the great arts in this country, and it deserves to be honored.


But we do want the academy to make the show more relevant to the viewers it is steadily losing. The task is daunting: How do you honor excellence in every nook and cranny of the film industry, show off creators and celebrities, and do it all in less than three hours? (Or even just in three hours?) It’s like piling an enormous container ship high with cargo and then being shocked when it runs aground in a canal. The problem is that the academy wants the telecast to be too many things: a showcase of film artistry, a huge moneymaker and great TV.

Here are some ideas:

Scotch the no-host edict and get a big personality to emcee again. If the show is going to be good TV, it needs a host to guide it — and make some fun of it along the way. It’s a challenging, thankless task, so pay the host whatever he or she wants. The academy can afford it.

Make the show more diverse so that more of the moviegoing public feels represented — and let people know you’re doing it. The Oscars often is dominated by films that the industry loves but few people have seen, so the academy has to find more ways to connect with the public. This year’s show actually did a better job on the diversity front, with more people of color nominated and presenting awards — and even DJ’ing the show. But the shift wasn’t well promoted.

Granted, the academy can’t advertise its show by saying, “This year, 30% more Black people!” But somehow the organization has to trumpet the fact that this is no longer a show for insiders that’s dominated by white performers.

Consider streaming the awards show after the deal with ABC is up and create the academy’s own platform for it or use a free streaming site. Present the show commercial-free, which would cut the running time, and promote it robustly. The broadcast networks are hemorrhaging viewers. The academy should cut the commercials and go looking for the erstwhile viewers who are never coming back to network TV, no matter how much the academy changes its show.

Saving the Oscars is about more than just helping Hollywood promote itself more effectively. The best part about the show is the inspiration it gives viewers, whether they be aspiring filmmakers and actors or just people who love to watch them.

Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg, whose movie “Another Round” was named best international feature film, captured that perfectly in his Oscar speech. “This is beyond anything I could ever imagine,” Vinterberg said, “except this is something I’ve always imagined.”