Major change is coming to the Oscars.
On Tuesday night, just five months after the lowest-rated Academy Awards telecast on record (a mere 26.5 million viewers tuned in), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' board of governors not only re-elected cinematographer John Bailey as its president, but also approved several major changes to the tradition-bound ceremony's format in the hope of retaining the viewers it still has and luring others back into the fold ahead of the 91st Academy Awards on Feb. 24, 2019.
To address the concerns of those who find the show to be too long and boring (thanks largely to the current existence of 24 competitive awards, of which the general public only cares about a few), Bailey and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson said in a letter to members that the board has "committed to producing an entertaining show in three hours." They explain that this will be achieved partly by "present[ing] select categories live, in the Dolby Theatre, during commercial breaks (categories to be determined)." Those categories will not be removed from the telecast; instead, "the winning moments will then be edited and aired later in the broadcast."
This new format is similar to the one employed at the Tony Awards, which are annually broadcast on CBS, to recognize some of its lower-profile categories. (The Tonys present those awards and record acceptance speeches of them during a pretelecast portion of the ceremony, rather than during commercial breaks. Presenting them during commercial breaks is probably intended to make nominees in those categories feel more integrated into the heart of the telecast.)
The fact that this change has been endorsed by the Academy's board of governors, which is dominated by representatives of "below-the-line" branches whose Oscar winners could be impacted by this, is a testament to how dire the situation is, as far as the telecast's ratings. Still, one can safely expect a groundswell of protest from some of the members of those branches.
At least as important, in terms of improving the ratings of the Oscars telecast for ABC, the Academy also said in its letter that it "will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film" in time for the 91st Oscars, adding that "[e]ligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming." Some will complain that adding such a category cheapens the prestige of the Oscars, making it more like the People's Choice Awards or MTV Movie & TV Awards, but that is old-world thinking. More than the length of the telecast or the name of the host, Oscar ratings have been shown to correlate with the popularity of the nominated films among the general public. And the gulf between what the public buys tickets to see and what the Academy nominates and awards has never been greater.
If the popular film award (likely to be nicknamed "the Popcorn Oscar") is implemented in time for the 91st Oscars, then there is little doubt that ratings will improve, since blockbusters like Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again — and their fan-favorite stars — will be guaranteed a presence at the ceremony. (Black Panther already was expected to seriously contend for competitive nominations and awards, and the Academy confirms, "A single film is eligible for an Oscar in both categories — Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film and the Academy Award for Best Picture.")
The Academy also notified members that the date for the 92nd Oscars — the one that will take place in 2020, honoring the films of 2019 — has been moved up from the previously announced Feb. 23 to Feb 9. In all likelihood, this is to combat the sense that the Oscars have become anti-climactic, coming, as it does, at the end of a months-long season in which it is preceded by dozens of awards ceremonies. Those ceremonies won't fade away as a result of the calendar change, but people inside the industry will certainly be less burned-out by the time the Oscars finally come along.
Below is the full text of the Academy's message to its members.
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Last night, the Board of Governors met to elect new board officers, and discuss and approve significant changes to the Oscars telecast.
The Board of Governors, staff, Academy members, and various working groups spent the last several months discussing improvements to the show.
Tonight, the Board approved three key changes:
1. A three-hour Oscars telecast
We are committed to producing an entertaining show in three hours, delivering a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide.
To honor all 24 award categories, we will present select categories live, in the Dolby Theatre, during commercial breaks (categories to be determined). The winning moments will then be edited and aired later in the broadcast.
2. New award category
We will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film. Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.
3. Earlier airdate for 92nd Oscars
The date of the 92nd Oscars telecast will move to Sunday, February 9, 2020, from the previously announced February 23. The date change will not affect awards eligibility dates or the voting process.
The 91st Oscars telecast remains as announced on Sunday, February 24, 2019.
We have heard from many of you about improvements needed to keep the Oscars and our Academy relevant in a changing world. The Board of Governors took this charge seriously.
We are excited about these steps, and look forward to sharing more details with you.
John Bailey and Dawn Hudson
The Academy later issued an addendum:
While the details for a popular film category are still being finalized, a single film is eligible for an Oscar in both categories — Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film and the Academy Award for Best Picture. The new category will be introduced this coming year, at the 91st Oscars. In creating this award, the Board of Governors supports broad-based consideration of excellence in all films.