How To Save The Oscars: The Right Host Won't Fix The Show

As the "trailer" above suggests, the traditional way of trying to fix the Oscar show involves finding the perfect host. But Billy Crystal won't save a show that doesn't give the audience much of a rooting interest. In my latest Bloomberg column, I look at some more-radical ideas for saving the Oscars from their long-term ratings decline. Here's the opening:

Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony faces the real possibility of ratings humiliation. The Oscar telecast will almost certainly draw a smaller TV audience than the Feb. 12 Grammy Awards.

True, Whitney Houston’s death the day before boosted Grammy viewership to more than 39 million. But that’s only part of the equation. The Oscar ceremony is gradually losing viewers.

In only two of the past five years -- and five of the past 10 -- has its U.S. audience topped 40 million, according to Nielsen Co. (Last year’s Oscar show attracted 37.9 million viewers.) By contrast, from 1990 to 2002, the audience never dropped below 40 million, and it swelled to 55 million in 1998, when the monster hit “Titanic” won Best Picture and 10 other awards.

The downturn isn’t inevitable. American TV viewers love competitions. “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars,” and football account for eight of the top 10 regularly scheduled programs. This year’s Super Bowl was the most-watched TV show in U.S. history, with 111.3 million viewers, beating the record set by the 2011 game.

Although TV audiences may be fragmenting, live events where fans have a rooting interest are still major draws. They give people something to argue about. They engage viewers’ passions. They create must-see TV.

So the Oscar telecast has great potential. At No. 9, it was still the only non-sports program to rank in last year’s top 10. (It ranked 10th among younger viewers, ages 18 to 49 -- another bad sign.) But the usual approach of looking for the perfect emcee and tweaking the live performances -- this year’s show promises a one-time-only Cirque du Soleil act -- won’t stop the decline. The Oscars are about the movies, not podium jokes and stage spectaculars. Generating audience enthusiasm requires more radical steps. Here are a few ideas for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, all designed to engage moviegoers’ interests without sacrificing Oscar voters’ independent critical judgment.

1) Split the Best Picture category into two, based on the number of tickets sold.

Read the rest at Bloomberg View.