Cut the editors? But maybe keep the tribute to celluloid tap dancing?
The brouhaha over the plan to shave time off the Oscars ceremony by handing out four awards during commercial breaks has been resolved with the film academy calling take-backsies and declaring that all 24 awards would indeed be televised.
The litany of complaints about the show’s length (averaging 3½ hours in recent years) has become an annual rite. Last year, with disastrously low viewership, the show ran 3 hours and 53 minutes. This year, even without a host (a whole separate brouhaha), the academy tried to cut short cinematography, editing, live-action short, and makeup and hairstyling in the live broadcast. But outrage aside, how efficient would that have been in the first place? The Times studied 10 years’ worth of recent Oscars shows — the last nine, plus the last no-host year, 1989 — to see.
The show’s ratings have trended down the last five years as telecast length has increased, but length and viewership aren’t directly correlated. The 2013 edition was 3 hours, 35 minutes — 22 minutes longer than 2012 — and increased viewership, to 40.4 million. And the 2014 ceremony gained more than 3.5 million viewers over 2013. It was one minute shorter.
By far the largest non-awards time expenditure has been for ads. During the years examined, commercial breaks averaged around 38 minutes per telecast. No one’s telling ABC to sell fewer ads (… unless they sold fewer ads at a higher premium?), but we’re talking about giving out 24 awards, plus some special honors and an In Memoriam montage, and still squeezing in a little entertainment in about 2 hours and 20 minutes for a three-hour show.
Taken together, cinematography, editing, live-action short, and makeup and hairstyling winners have averaged 5 minutes and 11 seconds from the moment they were announced to the end of their speeches. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had proposed reducing those four awards to edited speeches selecting the “emotionally resonant” moments. Moving them to the kids’ table (like overflow candidates in the last Republican primary) would have saved about three minutes — not to mention shortchanging the non-winning nominees.
One area to consider is the time winners take to get from their seats to the stage. Including all 24 categories, as an average over those 10 years, that takes nearly 12 minutes per show. If the academy moved nominees to an area backstage before the winner is announced, that would likely save more than six minutes, and we’d still get the happy hugging shots with their loved ones during the copious outros and promos in every telecast (about eight minutes, on average). To be sure, it could be a Hollywood holding area, with soft lighting and Evian and mints. A fainting couch, at minimum.
Of note, though no one has suggested shunting the acting winners to off-air presentations, that group of four categories averages nearly double the air time of the originally targeted four categories: 9 minutes, 51 seconds.
Some years have had more non-nominee montages and musical interludes than others, but the average over that time has been about 16 minutes per show. Simply eliminating filmed tributes to previous acting winners and the four “inspiration”-themed clips packages would have saved the 2017 show more than 11 minutes.
The infamous, no-host barbarism of the 1989 show clocked in officially at 3 hours, 19 minutes, but at what cost? Oh, the humanity. The speeches (in only 22 categories, as animated feature wasn’t yet an award and one winner wasn’t present) were lightning-fast. Five were under 30 seconds. But the national nightmare known as the “Snow White Opening Number” was just one of the detours to Hades the show took. Others included an “Oscar Winners of Tomorrow” song-and-dance number and a tribute to tap dancing. Non-awards-related total: right around 54 minutes of air time. Yep, nearly a third of the show.
Going hostless could drastically reduce the more-than 30 minutes averaged by “host business” over this period. But it could also drastically reduce the entertainment value. Hosts have yielded some of the show’s best moments – the good monologues (Billy Crystal), the Ellen selfie that broke the Internet, Mean Tweets (a bit from host Jimmy Kimmel’s regular gig). They’ve also included a very stoned-looking James Franco. Removing them altogether would yield a straight-ahead, awards-centric proceeding with considerably less wacky brio, but then what would you have? The BAFTAs? Just how much fun do you want to bleed out of a bunch of adults handing one another trophies? Still, eliminating just half the host “bits” (Kimmel’s tour bus guests, say) from the show could easily yield an additional five minutes.
So there you go: Reduce the bits (five minutes), keep In Memoriam but cut the other non-nominee montages and numbers (about 16 minutes), and move the nominees backstage before their category is announced (about six minutes) … you just turned a 3-hour, 30-minute boondoggle into a sleek, three-hour-ish purring machine. And that includes cinematography, editing, makeup and hair, and live-action short. Squeeze just a little more out — the message from the academy president, say (roughly two minutes when it appears) — and you could add a telegenic category that honors “popular films,” such as stunts/choreography, performance capture or adaptation/song score.
You’re welcome, academy.
Times staff writers Makeda Easter and Sonaiya Kelley contributed to this report.
Total run times shown are based on official academy records, which may vary from archival recordings at the Paley Center for Media facilities used for this story.
Sources: Times reporting based on Paley Center archival recordings and other video archives; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.