Organizers of the Academy Awards are avoiding crystal balls, but they too appear resigned to the grim prospect that, for all their efforts and precautions, a disappointing number of viewers will tune in Sunday night. The question, in fact, seems goes beyond just how low ratings will go in this lost year to whether award shows can rebound from the declines already witnessed in 2020 and 2021 if and when the world returns to a semblance of normalcy.
Yet focusing on the nominees and winners overlooks that these award shows are themselves commercial enterprises, faced with the task of attracting an audience. If they don’t, advertising for such events will slide, and the spigot of revenue the organizations behind them rely on will gradually dry up.
Watching “Titanic” sail away with a then-box-office record and a best picture win — a happy wedding of art and commerce, prompting director James Cameron to memorably proclaim himself “The king of the world” — seems like a distance memory. Roughly 55 million people in the US watched that night, more than double last year’s record-low total of 23.6 million viewers, per Nielsen data.
While a few blockbusters have crept into the nominations — including Marvel’s “Black Panther” two years ago — the Oscars face the same challenge that has plagued the Emmys and other award shows: A general fragmentation of the audience, and a corresponding move to celebrate more niche-oriented fare.
Those dynamics have only been exacerbated by the pandemic year, when five of the eight best-picture nominees and other movies, like favored animation contender “Soul,” all premiered on streaming services. While Hollywood is desperately hoping that movie-going can rebound, there’s no certainty of putting the watch-at-home genie back in the bottle.
Seen that way, this year’s Oscars can perhaps be forgiven for wanting to reward the recipients with a night to remember. Yet if award shows want to have any sort of future that recalls their past, they’re going to need to give viewers something to remember too, and just as significantly, something to root for. And it’s hard to root for movies, frankly, that you haven’t seen in the first place.
The 93rd Academy Awards will air April 25 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.