Commentary: Academy can reverse Oscarcast's course after damming up Mainstream America

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It used to be said back in the day that the Academy Awards might be a big deal, but there are a billion Chinese who don't much care about 'em. Now, with the 81st Oscars looming Sunday, the bigger question is whether many of the 300 million or so Americans care either.

This much we can ascertain: Nearly 90% of folks in the U.S. aren't watching them, and that's a mighty big problem for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC. Fewer than 32 million tuned in last year to an Oscarcast that for the first time dipped below a rating of 20 (to an 18.7). Both numbers are all-time lows. And we're not talking about an incremental drop from 2007; the average audience plunged by a staggering 8 million, and the rating tumbled by five full points.

We can try to extrapolate a few things from these numbers, but it's unlikely there is a single reason for the tuneout. To be sure, viewers simply couldn't have hated host Jon Stewart that much. They probably didn't decide en masse that the night of Feb. 24, 2008, was the perfect time to catch up on their reading, since we know there isn't much of that going on anymore. I also doubt that people spontaneously stopped caring about who won or lost.

No, this likely had at least something to do with the oft-stated fact that the elusive demographic known collectively as Mainstream America rarely has its boxoffice favorites reflected to a significant degree on the nominees list. If you go out of your way to foist honors on a critical darling that's as enigmatic and eccentric as "No Country for Old Men," what you wind up with starts to play a bit like No Ceremony for Regular Moviegoers.

This is not to say the Academy Awards need to pander and consider adopting a more populist zeitgeist, but ... well, maybe a little more of that wouldn't hurt, actually.

There's always that tug-of-war between artistic achievement and popular success, and rarely the twain shall meet. But when they do, viewers flock to the Oscar show in droves, like in 1998, when the telecast drew a huge 57.2 million viewers -- about 16 million more than the previous year -- as "Titanic" ran the table. There also was an uptick of more than 10 million in 2004, the year of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

Of course, the "Titanic"-fueled audience also reflected something else: unprecedented interest among prepubescent girls and teens, the kind of youth movement about which Academy president Sid Ganis and his minions scarcely can dream now. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is more than a mere multiple nominee this year; its backward-aging gambit also has to be seen as a metaphorical template for any Oscar viewership revival.

What must happen to prevent the Oscars from further slipping into pervasive irrelevance has more to do with reversing the pretentious culture driving the nominations that too often takes a view of, "If it gets embraced by the peasants and makes a boatload of cash, it can't be truly worthy of our veneration." I mean, would it have killed this year's voters to give a best picture nom to "The Dark Knight"? That alone would have added 5 million-6 million to the Sunday night audience count.

There is sad irony in the notion that perhaps the biggest trump card in the telecast's deck this year is a man who no longer is alive: Heath Ledger, a near-certain winner for "Dark Knight." A lot of people saw his film and adored it. Alas, it isn't something telecast producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon can exploit. The buzz is they have some new tricks up their sleeves to bring people back to Hollywood's big night, including creative ways of dispensing the statuettes -- hopefully not involving catapults.

Those who vilify the Oscar broadcast for its boring pacing and excessive length never seem to acknowledge that there are only so many ways to give out 24 awards. It's never going to be three-plus hours of pure enchantment. It's also never going to be the Super Bowl, which long ago evolved into a party-mad phenomenon glorifying violence and commerce.

If the Super Bowl can attract nearly 100 million viewers on average, however -- as it did this month -- shouldn't the so-called "Super Bowl for women" be able to generate half as many?

Here is your answer: yes. People still love the movies; they always will. But what they love most is the films and stars they care about, not the ones they're told to care about. If you build it back into America's show again, they will come back.
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