Tips to enliven ratings-challenged awards shows. Want more viewers, Oscar? Here's how. (Hint: You may want to invest in a hot tub)

By Dan Snierson
Updated February 07, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

What’s the biggest upset of this awards season? Not Natalie Portman’s Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for Closer. It’s — envelope, please! — that America barely watched it happen: Viewership plummeted 37 percent from 2004. Similarly, last September’s Emmys attracted only 13.8 million viewers (down 23 percent from 2003), prompting the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to consider changes, like dropping movie categories and/or adding reality races. The sheer number of ego-fests (more than two dozen awards shows aired last year) doesn’t help. And the Feb. 27 Oscars have additional problems: zero Best Picture blockbusters and few megawatt nominees. Which raises the question: Can anything make awards shows interesting again? ”There are a lot of contradictory requirements,” says veteran Emmy producer Don Mischer. ”Do you serve your constituency — the members of the Academy — or do you do a show more focused on stars, which would make it more appealing [to fans]? There are no easy answers.” Maybe not, but we offer eight anyway.

1 SUBTRACT THE ADS We feel your financial pain, TV networks, but the constant intrusion of commercials is highly alienating. Why not allow one company to sponsor the event and limit the blocks of commercials to the beginning, middle, and end? Heck, we’d be willing to stare at a giant Zoloft logo on the stage if it would allow the show to build a modicum of momentum.

2 IF YOU MUST HAVE AN OSCAR HOST, INSTITUTE TERM LIMITS We suggest four years. And think creatively, as in the superbly restrained Steve Martin or former Independent Spirit Award host John Waters. Tapping an edgy outsider like Chris Rock for this year’s show is smart (though if the ratings are low, he’ll undoubtedly be blamed). Consider also Conan O’Brien, who shined as the 2002 Emmy host, Ellen DeGeneres, and the multitalented Jack Black.

3 GET SPEECH THERAPY Thanking every single person who ever touched their lives overwhelms stars and underwhelms viewers. Have winners post their endless thank-you lists online — or even scroll the debts of gratitude across the screen — thus allowing for spontaneity, drama, even controversy. If Michael Moore can find work after his delightfully uncomfortable 2003 Oscar speech, anyone can.

4 MIX AND MATCH CREATIVELY When actors from an upcoming movie hit the podium, it feels like an ad (such as Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s lame Starsky & Hutch plug at 2004’s Oscars). MTV’s kooky VMA combos (Busta Rhymes and Martha Stewart!) are just right. And please, hire sharper writers: No more stilted banter and forced flirtsploitation.