Five changes that would improve Oscar ratings

Ratings continue to slide downward

By BRIAN LOWRY
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Rotating the hosts, and coming up with attention-getting choices, has been a way of spiking the ratings in the past.

LOS ANGELES (CNNMoney) - Oscar ratings continue to slide downward, reflecting both the glut of televised award shows and the gravity that is tugging down at practically everything else in the TV universe, fueled by an abundance of options.

Yet there are ways to stem, or at least slow, those tides, with the main problem being that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and now ABC -- the first set in its ways; the latter, eager to maximize its investment -- don't want to do them.

Conservatives like to say politics is the problem, but there are plenty of movie fans who won't be chased away by a few barbs directed at Republican politicians. So if the organizers and network are really concerned about the ratings, here are five suggestions:

Hold the show to three hours

Practically every other awards show is governed by a pretty rigid time clock, where material gets thrown out if the evening is running long. Only the Oscars operate on its own system, where it's not unheard of for the broadcast to drag on well past 3 ½ hours -- a feeling of bloat that becomes more evident as the night drags on. (Even with an earlier start the show didn't finish until 11:48 p.m. in the Eastern time zone.)

Spice up the hosts

Jimmy Kimmel has done a perfectly fine job the last two years, and ABC -- which has gained more creative control over the presentation -- has every reason to want to showcase and promote its late-night star.

That said, rotating the hosts, and coming up with attention-getting choices, has been a way of spiking the ratings in the past, from Chris Rock to Jon Stewart to Hugh Jackman. It's worth noting that even some of those talents were flummoxed by the Oscar format, but it at least gave the press something to write about building up to the show, and people something to debate and chew over after.

Nominate some blockbusters

It's no accident that the most-watched Academy Awards ever came in 1998, when "Titanic" sailed away with a host of awards, including best picture. That's not to say that Oscar voters should begin grading on a curve, but like the Emmys, it does help when viewers bring a rooting interest to the party, and don't have a "What's that?" reaction as the nominees are announced.

Granted, the tides have actually been flowing in the opposite direction, thanks in part to trends within the movie business, which has split into art-house fare (a la "Call Me By Your Name" and "Phantom Thread") and superheroes and sci-fi. Still, adding movies like "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" or "Black Panther" to the mix would likely create excitement among a hard-to-reach segment of the audience that wouldn't tune in otherwise.

Tighten up (or eliminate) the lowest-profile categories

This ties in with the first item, but the Oscars are unique in that most of its honorees come from below-the-line categories like sound, production design and makeup. That doesn't mean those folks shouldn't have their moment, but combining and truncating the presentation of those awards -- having one pair of presenters, say, hand out three or four of them -- would help streamline the telecast.

The same applies, perhaps even more so, to the short film categories. Oscar organizers are protective of those, but let's face it, practically nobody in the viewing audience has seen them. That would appear to make them ripe fodder to race through or more drastically, shift to the scientific and technical presentation.

Phase out some of those other made-for-TV awards

This is one over which the academy has no control, but the entertainment industry does. And the bottom line is if you wanted the Oscars to feel truly special, you wouldn't muddy up the ecosystem with a host of televised ceremonies like the Critics' Choice Awards diluting their impact, to the point where -- during Sunday's show -- the four actor winners all had plenty of time to publicly rehearse their speeches.

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