THE OSCARS telecast averaged an 18.7 rating and a 29 share. That’s TV-Geek-Speak for the lowest ratings since 1974, about 32 million viewers – a 20% drop from last year. Some pundits are blaming the dismal ratings on the dark nature of the top films. Best picture, “No Country for Old Men” focused on a psychopathic killer. While it’s true that many of the nominated work was not exactly family fare, I’m not sure you can blame this year’s ratings on the films. And, I’m not sure that the Awards Show genre is to blame either. The problem may be simple economics: supply and demand.
There was a time when “The Oscars” was special. It was one of the few nights of the year you could see your favorite movie stars on display — this created scarcity in the marketplace. Movie stars, and their management, knew that the vaudeville admonition, “Always leave them wanting more,” was an immutable law of stardom. Stars, especially big stars, were only on display in limited quantities. George C. Scott, one of the biggest stars of the 70’s, actually won best actor for his performance in “Patton” and didn’t bother to show up at all. Now that’s scarcity!
That was then. Today, our culture is fame-crazed. It’s more of an obsession, actually. To slake this morbid thirst we have, well – let’s count ’em: Access Hollywood, ET, CNN Hollywood Insider, TMZ, E!, The Today Show, GMA, CBS This Morning, Live w/Regis & Kelly plus all the late night shows, plus all the specials, plus the repurposed documentaries, plus the simple fact that you are only one click away from everything you ever wanted to know about anybody who has ever been in a film – this list is actually endless.
The ratings for this year’s Oscar telecast may simply be a reflection of the over-supply of star stuff in the marketplace. And, with no particularly remarkable film, conflict, controversy or compelling story element to bring viewers into the tent, the result was dismal ratings.
There is a little bit of circumstantial evidence to support this thesis. A few weeks ago, Super Bowl XLII was the most-watched sporting event on record and the second most-watched TV program in history. Nielsen says an average of 97.5 million viewers watched the Giants-Pats contest. The most-watched program is still the M*A*S*H finale, which drew 106 million viewers in 1983. The big game also broke a record for total viewership, with 148.3 million viewers (persons age 2+ watching all or part of the game). The previous record stood at 144.4 million for Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004.
Emergent sporting events are the polar opposite of awards shows, which laud evergreen content. They are very, very scarce. In fact, they play live and, they play only once To be sure, every sports show is not the Super Bowl. But it is not unfair to compare the two shows. Each is a heavily promoted annual event with 100% brand awareness amongst their respective target audiences, and each is broadcast live.
Which begs the question: “Is it time to rethink the Oscars?” The obvious answer is yes. There is simply too much competition for the shows unique selling principle to remain star-gazing, gown-rating and gossip-mongering. The audience can get a better version of it 24/7/365 from places they frequently visit and are used to using for that particular purpose.
Want to see stars in gowns? Check out the pages of US Magazine (any issue). Most women I know who care about such things actually prefer US to any other media. My wife explained it to me matter-of-factly: US Magazine pays special attention the how they crop their photographs and almost every shot of a star in a gown is displayed full length to include the shoes. I didn’t see one Red Carpet shot with shoes! Jimmy Choo, where are you?
Everyone who has been in the television business for more than a minute will tell you that all you need for a successful show is great story telling and real conflict. The awards show format does not lend itself to great story telling. And conflict, such that it can exist, is completely dependent upon the nominated films and stars.
That being said, next year’s show could be the highest rated of all time if a few completely uncontrollable variables come into play. Perhaps a couple of big stars will be dating or have just broken up. Maybe one of the films will break box office records or, there will be an overwhelming theme that has the country’s attention and focuses them on the show. Any one of these things could easily add 10 million viewers, but it’s not something you can count on.
I would probably be smarter to re-imagine the show and adjust its focus. If viewers have seen it all before, “flip the script.” In an industry that lives or dies by promotion, where attention truly drives the economy, it is going to be very hard to count on the return of scarcity. However, there are other compelling aspects of the world of entertainment that can be presented in a unique way.
Was this year’s Oscar telecast a bad show or is there just too much supply and not enough demand for the content? Either way, there’s a lesson to be learned.