The Oscars

Academy sticks to a tame script

Awards: ABC avoided displays of bad taste but isn't likely to reverse its show's ratings decline.

March 01, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Caught between the ABC network's need to attract young male viewers and the motion picture academy's insistence on a "dignified" program in the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl debacle, last night's 76th Annual Academy Awards telecast began as a tightrope act.

"Expect the unexpected," was the network's mantra last week, according to Louis J. Horvitz, director of the telecast. To further entice younger television viewers, the telecast was peppered with such MTV-friendly performers as Jack Black, Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell. But how unexpected could things be with an audio and video delay mechanism in place and a host as mainstream as Billy Crystal?

"The Academy Awards have always tended to be a more staid affair than, say, the Grammys, because that's the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science likes it," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Televison at Syracuse University.

"But ABC is at a point this year where it needs some flash - some ratings sizzle - especially in terms of young male viewers. The network is feeling the pressure to reverse a steady ratings decline."

The Oscar telecast is in ratings trouble. In the past five years, its viewership has dropped 40 percent from 55.3 millions viewers in 1998 to an all-time low last year of 33 million. The audience for last year's telecast, which came at the start of the war in Iraq, was down 20 percent from the previous year.

In contrast to last year's more subdued ceremony (toned down in deference to the war), this year's pre-telecast show offered a return to glamour as stars sashayed down the red carpet.

But the show itself began with the old-time show-biz schtick of Crystal singing parodies in salute to stars such as Clint Eastwood ("Old Man Eastwood" sung to "Old Man River") and Russell Crowe ("Come Sail With Me" sung to "Come Fly With Me"). Crystal delivers lyrics with a delicious sense of joy, but this was an old formula back in the 1960s when the Rat Pack worked it in Las Vegas.

Little about last night's show seemed likely to appeal to young male viewers - or to convince early channel surfers to linger. A series of parodies of films in which special effects were used to superimpose Crystal into scenes from several of the year's biggest hits did show him partially nude, but that's not exactly the kind of flesh that will draw a young audience.

The closest the telecast got to female nudity was a reference by Crystal in one of the songs to Jackson's breast-baring spectacle during the Super Bowl half-time show. As Crystal urged him to stop, Robin Williams, who presented the award for best animated feature film, pulled at the chest of his jacket as if trying to bare his left breast.

Crystal had introduced Williams "as the reason for the five-second delay." But for all the comic brilliance of Crystal and Williams, the moment barely rated a smile.

Commercials, too, were in keeping with the academy's insistence that there be none of the lapses in taste that marked the Super Bowl. Budweiser beer, known for some of television's raciest ads, featured young men and women in different cities around the world talking to one another and drinking the same beer. There was not a thong, wet T-shirt or sexually suggestive body part to be seen.

The academy vetted all ads, and its telecast was sold out at $1.5 million per 30-second spot with such mainstream staples as State Farm Insurance and Charles Schwab.

Even the political content - the one area over which producer Joe Roth promised not to use the power to censor - was decidedly subdued in the early going. Other than a few joking references by Crystal to President Bush's contested military service in the National Guard, this could have been a telecast emceed by Bob Hope in the 1950s. That is exactly what last night's telecast felt like when Crystal and several recipients paused to address and thank members of the armed services stationed around the world.

Tim Robbins, who won an Oscar as best supporting actor for his work in Mystic River, used his acceptance speech to urge victims of abuse to speak out. And Renee Zellweger, who won best supporting actress for Cold Mountain, limited herself to thanking and complimenting others. Hardly the stuff of controversy.

Annie Lennox and Alison Krause delivered fine musical performances, but they appeal primarily to adults older than the ones ABC needed to attract for the show to be called a success by network standards.

"It's a dilemma - how do you attract young male viewers who want to see flesh, according to conventional Hollywood wisdom, without offending the family audience the way CBS did at the Super Bowl?" said Shirley Peroutka, professor of popular culture at Goucher College.

"I'm not sure any telecast in this post-Bono, post-Super-Bowl climate was going to manage that trick. Maybe safe and tame was the way to go. But you have to wonder how ABC's going to feel about that if the ratings come out and they're even worse than last year."

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