Rock is meant to bring edge, ratings to awards

The Oscars host will toe the line between boring and too risque.

February 25, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

When comedian Chris Rock strides onstage at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles Sunday night to present the 77th annual Academy Awards, he'll also be walking a tightrope.

On one side, in Hollywood, will stand ABC executives, desperate to avoid the slide in ratings suffered by every other major awards show this year. On the other side, in Washington, will be the increasingly vigilant Federal Communications Commission, which imposed record fines for indecent programming last year.

"Enter Chris Rock, the essence of iconoclastic, hip and foul-mouthed," said Abe Novick, senior vice president of Baltimore-based Eisner Communications, one of the East Coast's largest buyers of television time. "He's Hollywood's way of trying to shake up the Oscars and pump up interest in the telecast by walking right up to the line laid down by the FCC -- and then threatening to cross it."

In magazine interviews, on television shows and ABC promotional ads in recent weeks, Rock and the network have worked to create the illusion that this year -- despite a five-second delay imposed by the network -- the Oscars will be edgy, unpredictable and raw.

"You won't believe this halftime show," Rock told an audience of 24.2 million viewers Sunday in an ABC-produced spot that ran during a commercial break in Desperate Housewives. The ad showed Rock with a wickedly playful smile on his face as he caressed the trademark gold Oscar statuette in a sexually suggestive way.

Publicity stunt or not, the campaign appears to be working. With days to go before the show, online chat rooms are abuzz with speculation about what Rock will do and say on such topics as sexual orientation and race, and President Bush and the war in Iraq. In response to all the interest, ABC has been able to raise Oscar-night ad rates 7 percent from what it charged last year, to $1.65 million for 30 seconds of airtime.

That is second only to the $2.4 million for 30 seconds of time that Fox got during the Super Bowl. That figure seems all the more impressive given the ratings misery for other awards shows in the year since Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction led to the tape delays that steal energy from live telecasts. The Golden Globes ratings were down 38 percent year to year, while the People's Choice Awards dropped 29 percent. The Grammys and the Emmys -- traditionally TV's two biggest awards nights after the Oscars -- were down 28 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

Rock's presence and ABC's desire to attract younger viewers are driving a number of major changes in the kind of TV show America will see Sunday beginning at 8:30 p.m. (WMAR, Channel 2). In trying to fit the performance space to Rock's in-your-face style of humor, producers have created a stage that juts deeply into the audience -- much as it does on MTV's Video Music Awards show, which Rock has been host of three times.

The format will enable Rock to interact with celebrities in the theater and calls for some awards to be presented while winners are at their seats.

"The idea this year is to minimize the line between people on stage and in the audience," said Gil Cates, executive producer of the telecast.

The belief is that blurring that line will make viewers at home feel more involved than ever in the telecast.

"We've always tried to make the viewers feel like they are really there -- in the audience, on the stage, in the orchestra pit," said Louis J. Horvitz, director of the show. "But this time, we are literally breaking that fourth wall."

The changes have young viewers buzzing about the Oscars, according to Pete Snyder, CEO of New Media Strategies, an international online marketing and research firm in Arlington, Va., that has been monitoring blogs, chat rooms and online communities as part of a study on the Oscars and the Internet.

"This is it; no awards show has come close to this kind of pre-air buzz in the blogosphere," Snyder said.

Of course, buzz is one thing and success is another. Previous hosts David Letterman (1995) and Whoopi Goldberg (2002) were heavily hyped but flopped on the big stage.

"The question everybody's asking online ... Chris Rock: Will he kill or bomb Sunday night?" Snyder said.

Rock himself has been hyping the online chatter by breaking a longtime taboo of hosts not criticizing the Oscars: "What straight, black man sits there and watches the Oscars?" Rock asked rhetorically in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.

Right-wing blogger Matt Drudge tried to ignite controversy over that remark with the claim that unnamed officials at ABC and the Oscars were growing increasingly unhappy with Rock as host. The conservative group Concerned Women for America joined in insisting that Rock is "the wrong host" -- "unless Hollywood wants to demonstrate how out of touch it is with the rest of America."

But ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences have had only unqualified praise for Rock.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.