Originally created 02/28/04

Who's watching? Oscar organizers aim to stop TV ratings freefall



LOS ANGELES -- If the slide in TV ratings is a sign, the Academy Awards are not going to win any prizes for best drama.

After decades of fairly consistent audiences, ratings for the granddaddy of award shows have skidded since the late 1990s. They tumbled to a modern low of 33 million viewers last year, when "Chicago" won best picture, down from 41.8 million the year before and from the record 55.2 million who watched "Titanic" take the top prize in 1998.

That has prompted a campaign by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC to turn around the Oscars' image as a prestigious but stodgy event.

To produce Sunday's ceremony, the academy enlisted Joe Roth - a mainstream-minded studio boss whose company's credits include "Anger Management," "Daddy Day Care" and "Maid in Manhattan" - who brought back popular host Billy Crystal for the first time since 2000.

Disney-owned ABC and its cable affiliates are heavily marketing the show with promotional spots and series that mention the awards or even build them into story lines.

"We're being much more aggressive," said Mike Benson, ABC senior vice president of marketing. "You can't take it for granted anymore that if you build it, they will come."

Characters on "One Life to Live" and other soap operas are talking up the Oscars. The series "I'm With Her" has had a running story line in which star Teri Polo's character is up for an Academy Award.

In this week's episode of the sitcom "It's All Relative," characters planning an Oscar house party were forced to detour to a hospital emergency room, where the nurse was played by Louise Fletcher, a best-actress winner for playing the vile Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

After Johnny Depp ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl") won the Screen Actors Guild Award over front-runner Sean Penn ("Mystic River") last weekend, ABC quickly taped a promotional spot telling viewers the "race is on" for the best-actor Oscar.

The network had never before done such a specific promo ad to highlight a competitive Oscar category, Benson said.

The Oscars remain the most-watched entertainment honors, yet they have a reputation for ponderous running times and a sense of decorum that does not make for great television. An onslaught of hipper shows such as the Golden Globes and MTV Movie Awards have been stealing some of the Oscars' luster.

The Globes, which drew an audience of 26.8 million on Jan. 25, are known as a show where stars booze it up during the ceremony, potentially loosening lips when it's time to accept a trophy. The MTV honors cop an impudent attitude, offering awards for best kisses or villains and last year handing out prizes to computer-generated hero Yoda of the "Star Wars" franchise and villain Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings."

Meantime, the Oscars lumber on largely the same as always. The addition of an animated feature film award two years ago was a rare alteration.

"More than anything else, as a television show, it has not evolved at all," said Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper, co-host of TV's "Ebert & Roeper and the Movies." "If you look at the Oscar telecast from the 1970s with Johnny Carson or 1966 with Bob Hope, it's essentially the same show now, other than the fashions and participants.

"For a lot of younger viewers, it's like this endless, boring awards program. You look at something like the MTV awards, it's about the show and not about the awards."

Moments of spontaneity in last year's Oscars - documentary winner Michael Moore's anti-Bush speech, best-actor winner Adrien Brody passionately kissing awards presenter Halle Berry - could remain fresh in viewers' minds, prompting more to tune in hoping for something unexpected.

Last year's decline may have resulted partly from viewers switching channels to catch news on the Iraq war front. Because of the war, the academy muted the Oscars' celebratory tone, scrapping the traditional red carpet crowded with beaming stars.

The academy bills this year's show as the return to full-glamour mode for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks. With fewer distractions on the world front, ABC and the academy hope more viewers will be in a mood to watch Hollywood frolic.

The Oscars also were moved to late February, three weeks earlier than usual. Academy overseers figured viewers were getting burned out by months of previous movie awards.

"The fact so many other film awards shows trekked in ahead of us, there was a fear we were kind of old news," said Bruce Davis, academy executive director.

This year's show also benefits from the return of Crystal, whose populist sense of humor seems to play better with audiences than that of recent host Whoopi Goldberg and last year's Steve Martin.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is the most popular best-picture front-runner since "Titanic," which augurs well for ratings since many fans will tune in to see their beloved fantasy epic crowned Oscar king.

Yet the acting categories are loaded with more relative unknowns this time, leaving fewer household names to root for or against.

Producer Roth has lined up an impressive list of celebrity presenters, including Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, Bill Murray and Will Smith. But scanning the nominee list, casual viewers will find a lot of names they do not recognize, such as Shohreh Aghdashloo, Djimon Hounsou, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Ken Watanabe.

"I just wonder if these actors are really known enough," said Lynne Segall, associate publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. "Yes, 'Lord of the Rings' is one of the biggest box-office hits of all time. But will people tune in for three and a half hours to the very end to see who wins?"