March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Social security, health-care reform, and … the Oscars? Yup, when it comes to seemingly intractable problems, the annual Academy Awards telecast ranks right up there with Dubya‘s dilemmas. Actually, it doesn’t. But bear with us. Though the show’s ratings are second only to the Super Bowl’s (46.3 million viewers last year, up 2 percent from 1999), the telecast is often poorly scripted, indifferently paced, and chronically bloated — the 2000 show clocked in at four hours and eight minutes, making it the longest Oscar night ever.

And that’s just the beginning of ABC’s problems. The network reportedly is having trouble filling the telecast’s pricey ad slots ($1.4 million for 30 seconds, up from $1.3 million last year), though an ABC spokesperson says it expects to sell out by show time. Advertisers aren’t dissing Julia and Russell. ”When the economy gets hit hard,” says Stacey Lynn Koerner, an analyst at TN Media, ”the first thing companies do is slash ad budgets.”

Also heading for the exits are last year’s producers, Richard and Lili Zanuck. Instead, Oscar telecast veteran Gil Cates is back for his 10th go-round. ”I guess I’m the only glutton,” he quips. His hiring of first-time Oscar host Steve Martin (who’ll replace Billy Crystal) is a great first step. But what to make of the return of choreographer Debbie Allen, she of the Saving Private Ryan tap number?

Rather than wait for post-red carpet carping, we thought we’d offer some advice before Hollywood’s big night.

DO get the most out of your host. As David Letterman knows, there’s a fine line between brilliant and Oprah, Uma-ville. ”My advice to Steve would be to remember that the Oscars will be seen by millions, so every word he says should be exactly right,” counsels consummate Emmy host Garry Shandling. This much we know: Martin won’t be crooning a medley or inserting himself into film clips a la Crystal. ”Steve’s [opening number] will be very much in keeping with his personality,” says Cates.

DON’T allow said host to crack jokes on the show’s length. The MTV Video Music Awards and the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards have made kudo shows watchable again, so listen to their makers’ advice: ”Enforce a ban on [any] presenter or host referring to the length of the telecast,” declares VH1 senior VP Lauren Zalaznick. ”It’s not an inside joke anymore, it’s not that funny, and you just added 15 seconds talking about how long it is.” So will this year’s ceremony finish on time? ”The show will be shorter than last year,” promises Cates.

DO find an appropriate way to present best-song nominees. Even without the 11th-hour Faith Hill-Whitney Houston switcheroo (not to mention misplacing Isaac Hayes in a cloud of dry ice), last year’s best-song medley was a mishmash. Luckily, this year’s performing nominees — including Bjork, Sting, and hopefully, Bob Dylan — may have a little more breathing room. Bjork’s website states she will duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke on ”I’ve Seen It All,” backed by a 55-piece orchestra. Cates is coy about his plans: ”We’ll give due respect to each of the songs.”

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