LOS ANGELES _ If the motion picture academy is really serious about improving its sagging TV ratings and transforming itself into a 21st century brand, it needs to start by giving a radical face-lift to Oscar nomination day.
It's hard to believe, in an era when nearly every media event imaginable is presented on prime-time TV, that the Oscar nominations, which in many ways offer far more snubs and surprises than the actual awards, are still being announced at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time in a presentation that had all the charm of a middle school assembly.
This year we saw academy President Tom Sherak, with actress Jennifer ("Winter's Bone") Lawrence at his side, taking turns reading the names of the nominated writers, directors, actors and actresses, as well as the nine nominees for best picture. Any suspense that might have been in the air was over in five minutes flat _ meaning nearly 25 minutes less than it took LeBron James to finally say that he was taking his talents to South Beach in his, yes, prime-time ESPN special, "The Decision."
The announcement provided several nuggets that got tongues wagging. The big news was about the losers, notably Leonardo DiCaprio, who didn't get a lead actor nod; Albert Brooks, who didn't make the supporting actor cut; and "Cars 2" and "The Adventures of Tintin," two high-profile animated films that didn't qualify for best animated feature. But was it must-see TV, seeing Sherak and Lawrence reading names off a teleprompter? Hardly.
The whole exercise raises the question: Why is the academy still announcing its much-coveted nominations in the kind of stilted, totally unphotogenic style that makes the organization look firmly anchored in the media equivalent of the Dark Ages? The idea of having the Oscar nominations unveiled before the sun has even hit the horizon in L.A. made sense 20 years ago, when it was vital to get good play on East Coast morning TV outlets like the "Today" show.
But in a media cosmos dominated by the Internet, Twitter and Facebook, staging an event that's geared toward morning TV is the equivalent of printing out all of your email and sending it by Pony Express.
In today's pop culture, anything that has any air of anticipation is a potential TV event. Look at sports, where everything from the NBA and NFL draft to the announcement of the MLB All-Star Game selections is packaged and presented as a TV show. Even the Heisman Trophy, given to the best college football player, is presented in prime time on ESPN, where last December's award pulled in 4.6 million viewers. The NFL draft is such a hot ticket that in 2010, ESPN's coverage of the draft's first-round selections actually got higher ratings than two NBA playoff contests, including the Los Angeles Lakers against the Oklahoma City Thunder, put together.
If a telecast showing NFL prospects strolling up to a podium can outdraw a pair of exciting NBA playoff games, it's hardly a stretch to imagine that a prime-time TV special built around the Oscar nominations could be transformed into a serious ratings bonanza. ABC, which broadcasts the Academy Awards, would be happy to have a show with some glamour and sizzle that could in turn be used to hype its Oscar telecast. (CBS, which broadcasts the Grammys, now does a prime-time Grammy nomination show.)
Dawn Hudson, the academy's new chief executive, was supposedly brought in as an agent of change at the slow-moving institution. I've heard that she is pressing ahead with several new initiatives, but since she hasn't returned any of my phone calls, I don't know whether a nomination-day TV special is high on her list or not.
So here's some free advice: Do it right away. The best thing about a TV show built around the nominations is that, simply by virtue of being new, it would be liberated from all of the stuffy, confining traditions that have kept the Oscars from undergoing any major renovations. The most obvious benefit? Since they've already been excluded from the current five-minute format, a new show wouldn't have to bore viewers with nominations for any of the arcane technical categories, which are locked into the Academy Awards, despite the fact that they gum up the works and make for awful television.
Even better, the new show could try all sorts of experiments deemed too radical for the big event, whether it's doing remote feeds from studio lots and nomination parties or having a camera crew at the homes of some of the leading actors, getting their instant reaction _ good, bad or ugly _ to the news. Let's face it, the essence of nomination day is what makes great TV _ the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I mean, who wouldn't want to see "The Help's" Viola Davis relishing the moment or Brooks' hilarious musings about being spurned again.
The academy should also embrace the inevitable: Since everyone spends most of his or her awards season attention span engaging in horse-race-style speculation, the nomination show should have pundits offering instant analysis about the biggest surprises _ they do it for the presidential debates, why not for the Oscars?
It's a no-brainer that the show should have a fresh face as its host. But more important, it should have a fresh attitude. Every other award show on TV, including the Grammys, Golden Globes, ESPYs and MTV Video Awards, has tons more on-screen fun than the Oscars. A show built around the nominations would be an opportunity to remind viewers that the Oscars, despite all its gravitas, knows how to have a good time.
The academy can jealously guard its prestige all it wants, but at some point it has to accept the fact that if you're putting on a TV show in the 21st century, stodginess almost guarantees a swift trip to the scrap heap.
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