It didn’t take long for Kevin Hart to step down from hosting next year’s Oscars after his nasty past of homophobia resurfaced. Hart refused to apologize then quit the gig and sort of apologized, but the damage was already done. Many wondered why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be so careless in their host decision, given that none of Hart’s homophobic comments were secret or all that hard to find. A 45-second Google session would have cleared all that up. Yet now they’re saddled with even more bad publicity, something they can’t afford to shoulder after months of becoming an industry running joke. Again.
First, there was the Best Popular Film nonsense, a shameless attempt to appeal to ABC and Disney’s hunger for ad dollars while claiming to diversify the kinds of films the Academy celebrates. Nobody fell for the trick and everybody saw it for the panic it was. The Academy knows it will get roasted if Black Panther is shut out of the Best Picture category, given its high critical acclaim, commercial record breaking success and cultural influence. What they seemed to believe would be a fix-it solution to all their problems was an obvious consolation prize and two-tier system that everyone saw for what it was. That category was quickly binned but don’t be surprised to see it return in the near future.
The other major Oscars change that garnered less headlines was their decision to shorten the ceremony itself to a compact three hour running time. That means that technical categories will be given out in ad breaks and a brief montage of ‘Other awards given out tonight’ will probably end the show after the big stars have given their uncut speeches. If you watch the BAFTAs or the Tony Awards then this won’t be new to you but you’ll be all too aware of how condescending it is. Imagine being the sound editor who wins an Oscar, the accumulation of decades of hard and unappreciated work, but being aware that to ABC you’re just a distraction from whatever Bradley Cooper has to say. For dedicated fans of cinema, the true gems of awards season are found in these moments. Imagine if this rule was brought in for the most recent Oscars ceremony. We may have missed seeing the legendary Roger Deakins win his much-deserved Best Cinematography Oscar. But hey, why care about that when we can show more skits of ‘normal people’ being talked down to by movie-stars?
All of this is important context for understanding why the Academy blindly walked into their brief hiring of Kevin Hart. As has been widely reported, the Oscars has been unable to find a host willing to take on the job. No wonder. It may be the most thankless job in entertainment. Even the best comedians have utterly bombed hosting the Oscars: Jon Stewart’s year wasn’t as bad as is often reported but it was clearly not his thing; Neil Patrick Harris floundered in a tough-to-watch manner; and the less said about David Letterman the better. Nobody wants that stain on their record, even if it is only for one night a year. It makes sense that the Academy probably jumped for joy when they found someone willing to shoulder the weight and didn’t think to check if, you know, their audience which is well-known for being LGBTQ+ inclusive would mind.
I’ve seen a lot of people ask why Hart was even chosen for the gig. What does he have in common with the Oscars? Is he really the kind of comedian who lines up with the demographic of the show? Probably not, but as the Academy have demonstrated time and time again, they really don’t give two hoots about their core audience. The viewership numbers for the Oscars are slipping and Disney/ABC are in a panic about it. But here’s the thing: All live T.V. viewership numbers are falling. Of course less people watch the Oscars live in 2018. They have about two hundred more channels than they did during the show’s peak and they may want to record it instead or catch up on it after streaming a new series or playing video games. Besides, the ratings are still some of the highest in North America for a live event. Only the Super Bowl fares better and even their numbers aren’t what they used to be.
The people who watch the Oscars every year will continue to do so. They’re locked into this madness. Believe me, I know. Even if that audience becomes increasingly niche, their loyalty is assured. But you can’t make maximum ad dollars from niche, and that’s ABC’s worry. They need people who don’t care about the Oscars to watch the Oscars, and the way to do that is get a mega famous host. Ellen Degeneres wasn’t the best host but her fanbase is huge and they tuned in. Kevin Hart is a big deal. He’s very famous and very rich and instantly recognizable to large swaths of America. Assuming he actually made it to the ceremony, his viewership numbers probably would have been pretty solid, but that wasn’t the point. The Academy will continue to pander to something that doesn’t exist to try and fix something that isn’t really broken.
The Academy will probably return to a familiar host like Billy Crystal or Ellen Degeneres and the band-aid will be reapplied for another year. But their fix-it schemes will continue. The Best Popular Film category will probably return at some point. The show will get shorter and shorter until it’s just musical numbers and the acting categories, or it will be dumped on a streaming service you pay through the nose to access. What all of this does is diminish the whole point of the Oscars. Not that the show has ever been 100% committed to rewarding true quality, but at least seeing the full ceremony and watching almost every corner of the industry get its dues for one night feels respectful. The people who care want those moments. They treasure them and revisit them as the years pass. They don’t give a crap about the comedy skits or the trend chasing. Once the Academy and ABC/Disney stops trying to make the Oscars for people who don’t care about the Oscars, then perhaps they’ll find themselves on steadier ground.
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