At least, we know how low the Oscars can go. 10.4 million viewers. Less by 16.8 percent than Day 1 of the NFL draft. Lower by 61.3 percent than Joe Biden’s first speech to Congress, which was lower by 75 percent than Donald Trump’s.
This is really low. It works out to 3.1 percent of the current United States population, down by four-fifths from 15 percent in 2001, which wasn’t even a record year. (That would be 1998, when Titanic took top honors.)
Is it rock-bottom? Probably. You could scrape together 10.4 million viewers from Oscar publicists, extended family, and people who forgot to turn the television off when they decided to play Parcheesi or finish the ironing.
So, a week after that dismal Academy Awards showing, the question becomes: What now?
Apparently, leaders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are still collecting their thoughts. The Board of Governors is not expected to meet this week, so any corrective action will have to wait. An Academy spokesperson offered no comment about the audience collapse or possible policy response.
One school of thought says the Oscars were simply caught in the same, pandemic-driven tidal wave that has rocked all the awards shows—Emmys, Grammys, Globes, SAG Awards—one after the other. But the officers of a flagship can’t take comfort in knowing the rest of the fleet is sinking. Somebody has to do something.
In truth, the Oscars could stay afloat at the 10- or 15-million viewer mark for quite a while, if ABC and its Walt Disney Co. parent continue to honor a contract that guarantees $100 million-plus payments for television rights through 2028. Under the agreement, the second half of this year’s payment is due 60 days after the April 25 broadcast. That’s six days before the June 30 end of the Academy’s fiscal year. Hence, the financials could look fairly normal (barring unusual costs associated with the broadcast and its Union Station venue), when eventually they’re disclosed.
Investors seem to think those payments are secure. In post-Oscar trading, prices on the Academy’s various bonds—used to fund its movie museum—dropped only slightly.
But something bigger than the film Academy and its finances are at stake. The movies need a mass audience, even if the Oscars, at least through 2028, do not. A momentary bump in digital sales for Nomadland or The Father isn’t enough. Film needs excitement, and something better than a broadcast that, as Bill Maher just said, “dared you to be entertained.”
Maher, in his latest broadcast, tossed off some thoughts that would be way more fun than what we just watched (or didn’t). “Call me,” said Maher.
If I ran the Academy, I’d do exactly that—and I’d ask him to host the next show. It’s better than going down with the ship.