It’s a good thing Oscar can’t furrow his gold-plated brow. If he could, a glance at the recent ratings for the sort of star-studded, glamorous awards show that he has come to personify would no doubt crease his shiny face with worry lines.

The Grammys? Down 28 percent from the previous year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The Golden Globes? Down 37 percent.

The Emmys? Down 23 percent.

The People’s Choice Awards? Down 29 percent.

If the 77th Annual Academy Awards telecast grows or breaks even in the ratings Sunday night on ABC, it will be the only prime-time network awards show to do so this season. And though ABC executives say they’re optimistic, there are few if any blockbuster films in this year’s crop of nominees likely to bring in the audience that, say, “Titanic” did for the 1998 ceremony.

What’s more, industry observers say, ABC is up against a long-term and seemingly inexorable trend: People just don’t watch awards shows anymore, at least not in the numbers that they did just a few years ago.

“It’s a pretty striking phenomenon this year,” said Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “It doesn’t seem to matter what the art form is, or who’s giving the award. There’s a broad, long-term trend. We have noticed with a certain amount of disquiet that the other shows leading into ours haven’t exactly been knocking the ball out of the park, and we’re wondering what’s going to happen.”

The basic awards show template – red-carpet entrances, designer dresses, elaborate staging, heartfelt acceptance speeches – has gone largely unchanged for decades, while the entertainment industry and the culture of celebrity have undergone massive shifts.

“I think someone desperately needs to reinvent the awards show format,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, director of entertainment for the media-buying firm Starcom MediaVest Group. “There’s a whole generation that grew up on the MTV awards shows. You can’t expect them to watch their grandfather’s awards show.”

The allure of the movie star that helped networks gather more than 80 percent of the television audience for the Oscars in decades past has been eclipsed by a relentless barrage of celebrity news and gossip – including countless Oscar imitators, from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors Guild Awards – turning what once was a Hollywood spectacle into a relatively commonplace event.

“When I was a boy, if you wanted to see Jimmy Stewart, you could either go to the movies or watch the Oscars,” said Gil Cates, the executive producer of this year’s Oscar ceremony and a long-time veteran of awards shows. “But now – the Golden Globes had more stars than the heavens, and it still tanked. Stars alone do not make a show or a rating.”

What usually does make an Oscar rating is a blockbuster film in contention for Best Picture.

The most-watched telecast in Oscar history was 1998, when “Titanic” won 11 awards and pulled in 55.2 million viewers. And even Cates is worried that this year’s crop of nominees is notably lacking in the blockbuster department.

“The fortunes of the Oscars are directly related to how many people have seen the films,” he said.

By the time the Oscars aired in 1998, “Titanic” had sold an estimated 105 million tickets, according to Exhibitor Relations Co.

That’s nearly three times the 38 million tickets sold for this year’s Best Picture nominees – “The Aviator,” “Finding Neverland,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Ray” and “Sideways” – combined.

In the face of those less than encouraging numbers, ABC is doing what it can to generate interest in the show, most notably by hiring a professional bomb-thrower, comedian Chris Rock, as host.

“In a year when the movies that we’ve decided are the most interesting movies are smaller,” the academy’s Davis said, “then the host is a huge arrow in our quiver.”

The choice of Rock, who tends to find comedy in uncomfortable truths about race and is one of Hollywood’s more foul-mouthed comedic stars, is clearly an effort on ABC’s part to draw in younger audiences that might take a pass on Billy Crystal or Steve Martin.

“The networks and producers are without question trying to find a way to be relevant to a younger audience,” said Tim Spengler, executive vice president and director of national broadcast for Initiative North America, a media-buying firm. “Using someone like Chris is ABC’s way of trying to do that.”

And Rock has already lived up to his reputation with comments to Entertainment Weekly suggesting that only women and gay men watch the Oscars, causing a minor flap that cynics accused ABC of engineering.

“It’s obviously a publicity stunt,” Starcom MediaVest’s Caraccioli-Davis said. “The only draw is Chris Rock.”

Andrea Wong, the ABC executive vice president responsible for overseeing the Oscars, said she had nothing to do with Rock’s comments, but seemed pleased nonetheless that he’s attracting attention.

“Chris is making noise, and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Whether audiences – particularly younger ones – hear that noise and tune in is another question.

“People will start to question the overall value of awards shows if the numbers are down this time,” said Caraccioli-Davis. “This year could be a turning point where they realize there is a new generation we need to get watching these shows.”

ABC insists that it’s not concerned with the poor performances of other awards shows, both because several of those programs fell victim to the Sunday-night behemoth that is ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” and because they are just that – other awards shows.

“I think the Oscars stand alone,” Wong said. That’s why advertisers are willing to pay a reported $1.6 million per 30-second spot during the show – compared to a reported $2.4 million for 30 seconds on this year’s Super Bowl telecast. The Academy Awards ad price is up 6 percent from last year.

ABC recently signed a new deal guaranteeing the right to air the ceremony through 2014. ABC won’t say how much it is paying, but its previous deal paid the academy a reported $45 million per year.

Although the Oscars’ share of the viewing audience has declined over the 51 years it has been broadcast, the total number of viewers has consistently hovered somewhere around the 40 million mark, give or take 10 million. It is still generally the second-most-watched event of the year behind the Super Bowl.

Indeed, as television audiences continue to fragment and migrate to cable and other offerings, shows like the Oscars – even if their ratings are in decline – tend to become more valuable.

“I began worrying about things back in the late 1980s, when it became clear that audiences were declining,” Davis said. “And I thought, “Jeez, there is a time coming when no network will be able to afford to pay us what we’re accustomed to.’ The ratings continued to tick downward, but the number of occasions during the year when advertisers could gather that size audience was shrinking, too. In fact, the license fee has climbed in the face of that decline.”

“It’s still an ultra-classy environment,” said Spengler. “Most of the sponsors have been in for many years, and they believe in the platform and what it says about their brand. And that matters more than ratings variations in any one year.”

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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Keyword: Oscars

AP-NY-02-23-05 0628EST

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