The Oscar show needs fixing everyone agrees on that. Ratings for the Motion Picture Academy's annual rite of self-congratulation have fallen more than 40% in the past decade, from 1998, when Titanic was named Best Picture, to 2008, when No Country for Old Men won. What for ages was the year's most watched entertainment program is now just another awards show.
Like freelance economists poking the American fiscal corpse with the long sticks of their opinions, critics of the Oscar show have floated all manner of remedies. Nattering nabobs like yours truly have urged Academy members to consider nominating good films that are also popular films, on the theory that people will tune in to see prizes handed out to movies they've watched and have a rooting interest in. (See TIME's Oscar predictions for 2009.)
Others have proposed a separate afternoon ceremony for the technical categories (art direction, sound mixing, sound editing, etc.) and the awards for films almost nobody can see (animated, fiction and documentary shorts), thus allowing the evening to be a showcase of star actors, possibly with longer clips from their films. That's what the Grammy show has become: an all-star concert, with only 10 of the record industry's 110 awards presented on the prime-time show. Or Oscar could go the full American Idol route, with the nominated thespians in an "act-off" of big movie scenes, and the viewing audience, not the Academy's senior citizens, choosing the winner.
Even the Academy solons have recognized: Hollywood, we have a problem. They've brought in Bill Condon and Larry Mark, respectively the director and the producer of Dreamgirls, to zazz up the show. According to this weekend's USA Today, "the ceremony will have a narrative, unfolding like a play in which awards are given as part of the plot. Some of the industry's biggest stars (many of them aimed at younger fans) drop in for guest roles." Another report suggests that one segment will feature Hugh Jackman, this year's host, at the piano because if there's anything to bring the kids in, it's having the star of that epic flop Australia performing a medley from Oklahoma. (Note to Condon and Mark: heterosexuals watch this show too.)
If they're turning the Oscars into a musical mystery tour, I think they're wrong. I think I'm wrong too; adding blockbusters to the nomination lists is part of the answer, but it's not the big answer. Which is: have a designated celebrity read out the five names in each major category in ascending order of the votes they received the last-named being the winner.
Who Won, and by How Much?
In virtually every other competition, whether it's the World Series or an Olympic marathon or a national election, viewers get to see how close the race was. Would a large audience have invested a whole evening in the outcome of the presidential election if the only excitement was in hearing Brian Williams announce, "And the White House goes to ... Barack Obama!" not which states he won, or how few votes determined the margin of victory in Virginia or Indiana? And the Super Bowl would 100 million people watch it if the halftime show were virtually the whole show and, at the end, John Madden said, "The Steelers won," instead of, "This was the closest, wildest, most thrilling fourth quarter in NFL freakin' history!"