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Oscars: 'We may have to get used to smaller audiences,' says Academy exec

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On Sunday, Feb. 24, the Academy Awards telecast earned its lowest audience rating on record, plummeting 21 percent from last year. Is the Oscars in crisis? And what, if anything, can the Academy do to turn the tide? EW.com spoke with Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the reaction at the Academy when you got the ratings numbers on Monday?
BRUCE DAVIS: That’s kind of a foggy day for a lot of us, but there was some phoning back and forth. We were startled that they were as low as they were. Because we had small and dark pictures this year, we all thought we wouldn’t hit 40 million [viewers] again. But I never talked to anyone here who expected it to fall off as much as it did.

Can you tell from the ratings when people tuned in, and when they tuned off?

There was a lot of shuffling, people tuning in and then moving away and then coming back. But the main problem was that a huge part of the traditional audience just never showed up.

How does this low rating affect the Academy’s contract with ABC to broadcast the show?

It’s not important in the sense that the network won’t pay us as much

next year. We have a contract that runs through 2014. But the next time

we negotiate a contract, if this is an ongoing trend, it may well have

some effect.

How does the contract work?

It is a licensing fee, but there is some revenue sharing if they sell

commercial spots for more than was expected when we were predicting

income [at the time the contract was negotiated].

Everyone has theories about what caused the ratings drop. Some

say it was the movies. Some say the lack of stars. Some say the

writers’ strike hurt the award season. What do you think caused this?

I don’t think the writers’ strike had much to do with it. I think Jon

Stewart did a terrific job. The things we could control went pretty

well. The length of the show was good. We had some really memorable

acceptance moments. I do think, finally, that the trend of the studios

making big action pictures and the specialty houses making small,

prestige movies is sort of catching up to us.

How so?

Some of these movies are just too difficult for a mass audience,

frankly. And if we have moved into an era where there’s this dichotomy

between big popular studio movies and smaller pictures for more

specialized audiences, we may just have to get used to smaller

audiences [for the Oscar telecast.] This could be a one-year blip but

it doesn’t look like one. It looks like something that has been

developing over the past few years. It’s as if the National Book Awards

had to make a choice between giving awards to very serious fiction or

to the most popular bestsellers. We’ve come to that point where there

are two kinds of movies, and we’re focusing on the ones which, almost

by definition, aren’t going to be blockbusters.

So should the Academy try to be more populist?

[Speaking tongue-in-cheek] We could try to get all the members to vote for the big popular pictures but I don’t think we can do that.

What motivates most people to watch the Oscars? Is it the movies? The fashion?

ABC did a series of focus groups a couple of years ago. Prior to that,

we all assumed that a horse race — a year when nobody knew what was

going to win Best Picture or Best Actress — would [drive ratings up].

Our assumption was completely wrong. When we asked people in the focus

groups, people who described themselves as regular Oscar viewers, how

many of them saw all five best picture nominees, no hands would go up.

How many saw four? No hands would go up. Three? You’d get a couple

people. [We realized] that they’re watching the Oscars for the aspects

of the show that we’ve all been a little embarrassed by: They like the

red carpet and the movie stars. Many years, it doesn’t matter if

they’ve seen the films or not. Somehow this year, it did.

The show has been on an overall, general ratings decline for

decades now. If the Oscar telecast never regains its ratings dominance

— if this is the new reality from no on — does it change the kind of

show you’re able to put on?
For the next few years, absolutely

not. But that’s an interesting question. At some point in the future

will we be looking at a different kind of awards show? That’s

conceivable. We gave out Oscars before there was any television

broadcast at all, we may have to live with doing something for a much

more restrictive audience. We will see.

Is your primary mission to put on a profitable TV show, or to reward the best film work of the year, ratings or no?

We recognize that it’s a television show, but emphatically we come down

on the other side of your question. If we simply wanted to do a

television show, we would cut out all the awards that didn’t go to

actors and directors. We know that a one-hour show like that would

attract a larger audience, but we’re not doing that. And it’s not

because we’re too dumb to know that people aren’t fascinated by who

wins Best Production Design.

All awards show ratings have been in decline recently. Why do you think that is?

Not only has the TV dial fragmented and re-fragmented, but you have

competition from other home entertainment. That the ratings have

drifted downwards isn’t surprising to anybody. The nice thing is that

there are so few shows that can gather as large an audience as the

Oscars can. Sponsors are very eager to have that crowd even though it’s

not as large as it used to be.

Do you expect to do any soul searching about how the show works?

We always analyze the show. We have a special committee meeting where

we talk to the producer, and then another meeting where we have the

Academy governors look at the show. Those meetings are usually about

how the show can be better. This year, the issue is people [not

watching the show at all.] I imagine we’ll talk about that, but the

range of options is narrow.

How does this low rating affect the Academy’s contract with ABC to broadcast the show?
It’s not important in the sense that the network won’t pay us as muchnext year. We have a contract that runs through 2014. But the next timewe negotiate a contract, if this is an ongoing trend, it may well havesome effect.

How does the contract work?
It is a licensing fee, but there is some revenue sharing if they sellcommercial spots for more than was expected when we were predictingincome [at the time the contract was negotiated].

Everyone has theories about what caused the ratings drop. Somesay it was the movies. Some say the lack of stars. Some say thewriters’ strike hurt the award season. What do you think caused this?
I don’t think the writers’ strike had much to do with it. I think JonStewart did a terrific job. The things we could control went prettywell. The length of the show was good. We had some really memorableacceptance moments. I do think, finally, that the trend of the studiosmaking big action pictures and the specialty houses making small,prestige movies is sort of catching up to us.

How so?
Some of these movies are just too difficult for a mass audience,frankly. And if we have moved into an era where there’s this dichotomybetween big popular studio movies and smaller pictures for morespecialized audiences, we may just have to get used to smalleraudiences [for the Oscar telecast.] This could be a one-year blip butit doesn’t look like one. It looks like something that has beendeveloping over the past few years. It’s as if the National Book Awardshad to make a choice between giving awards to very serious fiction orto the most popular bestsellers. We’ve come to that point where thereare two kinds of movies, and we’re focusing on the ones which, almostby definition, aren’t going to be blockbusters.

So should the Academy try to be more populist?
[Speaking tongue-in-cheek] We could try to get all the members to vote for the big popular pictures but I don’t think we can do that.

What motivates most people to watch the Oscars? Is it the movies? The fashion?
ABC did a series of focus groups a couple of years ago. Prior to that,we all assumed that a horse race — a year when nobody knew what wasgoing to win Best Picture or Best Actress — would [drive ratings up].Our assumption was completely wrong. When we asked people in the focusgroups, people who described themselves as regular Oscar viewers, howmany of them saw all five best picture nominees, no hands would go up.How many saw four? No hands would go up. Three? You’d get a couplepeople. [We realized] that they’re watching the Oscars for the aspectsof the show that we’ve all been a little embarrassed by: They like thered carpet and the movie stars. Many years, it doesn’t matter ifthey’ve seen the films or not. Somehow this year, it did.

The show has been on an overall, general ratings decline fordecades now. If the Oscar telecast never regains its ratings dominance— if this is the new reality from no on — does it change the kind ofshow you’re able to put on?
For the next few years, absolutelynot. But that’s an interesting question. At some point in the futurewill we be looking at a different kind of awards show? That’sconceivable. We gave out Oscars before there was any televisionbroadcast at all, we may have to live with doing something for a muchmore restrictive audience. We will see.

Is your primary mission to put on a profitable TV show, or to reward the best film work of the year, ratings or no?
We recognize that it’s a television show, but emphatically we come downon the other side of your question. If we simply wanted to do atelevision show, we would cut out all the awards that didn’t go toactors and directors. We know that a one-hour show like that wouldattract a larger audience, but we’re not doing that. And it’s notbecause we’re too dumb to know that people aren’t fascinated by whowins Best Production Design.

All awards show ratings have been in decline recently. Why do you think that is?
Not only has the TV dial fragmented and re-fragmented, but you havecompetition from other home entertainment. That the ratings havedrifted downwards isn’t surprising to anybody. The nice thing is thatthere are so few shows that can gather as large an audience as theOscars can. Sponsors are very eager to have that crowd even though it’snot as large as it used to be.

Do you expect to do any soul searching about how the show works?
We always analyze the show. We have a special committee meeting wherewe talk to the producer, and then another meeting where we have theAcademy governors look at the show. Those meetings are usually abouthow the show can be better. This year, the issue is people [notwatching the show at all.] I imagine we’ll talk about that, but therange of options is narrow.