Elusive target

In search of ratings gold, the Oscar telecast continues to reach out to a younger audience.

Consider the peculiar dilemma facing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It has the acknowledged crown jewel of Hollywood kudofests, the Academy Awards, which is still considered the pinnacle of artistic excellence. It's annually the second-highest-rated single TV program in all of primetime, trailing only the Super Bowl. Yet, the question that seems to constantly assault everyone's ears is this: What's wrong with the Oscars?

The problem with the Oscar telecast is its slow but steady ratings dip over the past 15 years or so; hence, the issue of how to stem the slide. It didn't help that a year ago, ABC's numbers for the 18-49 audience demographic were the second-lowest since 1992, down 10% from the previous year, which was attributable to a distinct lack of recognizable stars and big-ticket films in the nominations mix.

However, with Sunday's 79th Annual Oscar ceremony looming, the larger concern isn't how to close the popularity gap in the short term so much as what can be done to lure younger viewers over the long haul. The viewer numbers reflect the fact that the Academy Awards skew increasingly older in its appeal, which was a key reason why youth icon Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" was tapped to host last year. This year's choice of Ellen DeGeneres is seen as something of a midrange move -- not the young-adult draw of Stewart but more so than former hosts Billy Crystal or Steve Martin.

Young America doesn't automatically flock to the Oscars as previous generations once did, perhaps too busy with their iPods, text messages and video games or gripped by apathy over who wins and who loses. For those involved with putting on the telecast, the biggest challenge is how to freshen the approach for a new generation while remaining true to the show's traditional underpinnings.

"At the same time, we're not going to roll out a lot of new bells and whistles," promises Oscar telecast producer Laura Ziskin, who's on her second go-around with the job (her first was in 2002). "We want to evoke a fun mood but also one that's lively and full of energy and that moves along."

Does that mean the obligatory music that plays off winners running over their required 45-second acceptance speech time limit?

"No one will be playing anybody off," Ziskin promises. "But, by the same token, they have to be respectful up there. They don't want to be the person up there who causes everyone to moan and grown with their big list of people to thank."

Actually, one of the innovations Ziskin has planned for Sunday is a "thank-you cam" positioned backstage for winners who couldn't include everyone, and everything, they would have liked in their acceptance speeches. "It will allow them to go on as long as they like, and it goes immediately onto our Oscar Web site," she says. "This is where they can be all-inclusive."

Ziskin believes this is a suitable compromise that allows for full disclosure, as it were, without bogging down the proceedings with interminable speechitude. "We're also encouraging winners to kind of run from their seat to the stage," she adds. "We want no sauntering."

So, in other words, the producer is of the opinion that one way to attract young viewers in the fast-moving, quick-cut times in which we live is to keep things lively -- to the point of making it appear that the participants are parked in a "loading-only" zone.

"The Oscars are really like a race, or a sporting event, and need to reflect that," Ziskin maintains, "while at the same time honoring the industry."

While Academy president Sid Ganis admits that it can be tough having to market an Oscar show that once essentially sold itself, he also believes that the perceived slippage in its popularity has perhaps been a tad overblown.

"We've seen a dip here and there, but I don't know that I'd call it a slide," Ganis stresses. "In the end, the show is what it is. It comes down to the quality of the movies and the talent of individuals who are nominated, as well as how well it's promoted. Year in and year out, we feel that we present the show with taste and sophistication. But the truth is that we would absolutely want the numbers to be bigger."

Ganis allows that the Oscars "don't automatically" attract a sizable portion of the viewing public, which is why there is the need to market the ceremony to young men and women, in particular.

"Our first constituency remains people who love movies and go to a lot of movies," he says. "That's still our core viewership. Were we disappointed in the ratings last year? Well, there are always going to be fluctuations. But we feel like Jon (Stewart) did a great job, and we'd love to have him back at some point. There is no sense of panic about the audience level."

At the same time, Ganis emphasizes that steps are being taken to market the telecast to the younger demographic, citing the importance of the Internet and virtually simultaneous reporting during the ceremony "since we're at the point where people watch the show and work the Web simultaneously." A full-on streaming cyber simulcast "is only maybe a few years away," he estimates.

"We talk about innovation all the time," he notes. "If the Academy and the Oscars have an image of being stodgy, we're determined to try to dispel it by considering all things contemporary and new and different." On the other hand, any new wrinkles attempted in recent years have largely been met with a thumbs-down; hence, the bind the Academy finds itself in.

For her part, Ziskin isn't overly concerned about the composition or size of her potential Academy Awards audience as she goes about the business of creating the most dynamic and entertaining broadcast she can. In her case, that means a theme -- "The Road to the Oscars" -- that will look at the professional path taken to the big show by this year's nominees, along with a side theme celebrating great quotes from Oscar-winning films.

And while production numbers have grown to become almost a dreaded element of past Oscar shows, Ziskin is unapologetically crafting "a theatrical show" beyond the usual original song performances.

"I believe that theatrical elements are one of the things that people talk about the next day," Ziskin reasons, adding, "and hopefully in a positive way."

Ziskin also has heard more than her share of talk that this year's Oscar nominees list features more "sure things" than perhaps any other year in recent memory, with statuettes generally conceded to Helen Mirren, Eddie Murphy, Forest Whitaker, Martin Scorsese and, perhaps, Jennifer Hudson. However, she isn't buying it.

"There is no such thing as a sure bet at the Oscars, so I hope people aren't basing their viewing decision on the fact it's supposedly a done deal," she says. "This Academy has never slavishly followed the lead of any other awards, and I don't see that starting now."

But if all else fails to stem any incremental viewer tuneout from the telecast, Ziskin feels like she has an ace up her sleeve in her host.

"Ellen is a key part of everything we'll be doing that night," she points out. "She'll be setting the defining vibe, and she's just the consummate entertainer. She's really into this and working hard to make it great, and it makes my job a lot easier to have someone like her doing her thing and making us all look good."