Oscars Producer Welcomes Meryl Streep-Like Political Speeches: "Spontaneity Helps These Shows"

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Illustration by: Daniel Downey

"I don't like this attitude that just because someone's a celebrity, their right of free speech is taken away," says Michael De Luca, who isn't opposed to onstage activism even if many viewers and advertisers might wince and others fear movie fans saying, "I can't watch those damn people."

When the allegedly overrated Meryl Streep spent nearly six minutes denouncing Donald Trump at the Golden Globes on Jan. 8, social media lit up with viewers both irate and appreciative. Michael De Luca, who is producing this year's Oscar ceremony with Jennifer Todd, falls into the latter category. "These forums are rare," he says. "Spontaneity helps all these shows. The Globes were dull. One or two of these moments made the show spontaneous." Even at this particular moment of political divisiveness, when Hollywood is perceived in many parts of the country to be out of touch with the voters who elected Trump, De Luca has little patience for the blowback: "I don't like this attitude that just because someone's a celebrity, their right of free speech is taken away."

But that approach, which suggests the Oscars on Feb. 26 could be a similar exercise in Trump trolling, comes with risks. According to insiders, executives at Dick Clark Productions, which produces the Globes, would have been happy if its honorees skipped politics rather than offend some segments of the audience and advertisers — even though ratings for the Jimmy Fallon-hosted show rose 8 percent to 20 million viewers. "The Globes are just about having a good time," says one. The producers "are just trying to do a very entertaining and engaging show. These are moments of escape." Dick Clark declined comment.

Similarly, it seems at least some in the Television Academy feel the same way about the Emmys telecast. "You don't want political discourse," says one TV Academy insider. "You're going to piss off 50 percent of the country." Buzz online is good, says this person, "unless members of the audience turn off the show, saying, 'I can't watch those damn people.' "

Joe Roth, who produced the Oscars in 2004, says he had no objection to political commentary during the telecast, assuming the speaker had some credibility. He thinks Streep has more than enough. "If you're watching the Oscars, you're not going to turn off the TV because there's a political speech," he says. "At most, you're annoyed by it. If they don't turn the TV off at some of those eight-minute [montages] that go on and on and have nothing to do with the moment, they're not going to turn off a speech about politics."

With the Oscars rotating producers year to year, no one individual has to think about the show's success long term. But even a motion picture Academy source says the group much prefers a Streep moment to an array of winners reading agent and manager names. "Each year we encourage winners to use their brief time on stage to share a heartfelt message that's inspirational and celebratory of their journey, as those are the moments that resonate most with fans around the world," an Academy spokesperson says in a statement. 

An executive with knowledge of attitudes within the Academy agrees that not only would key players have no objection to a speech like Streep's, but "ABC would love it. It can't just be some bonehead [talking], but when you have an artist of Streep's stature, it's incredibly relevant. It's, 'Watch. Anything can happen! The show's live!' "

Advertisers who pay up to $2 million for 30-second spots on the Oscar show — AT&T, Coca-Cola and General Motors have had a big presence — tend to be progressive, adds the exec, and "the large majority are very focused on social media moments."

Still, the buzz around political controversy may not help ratings. The 2016 telecast, which saw host Chris Rock tackling racism amid the highly-publicized #OscarsSoWhite outcry, fell 8 percent from the previous year to 34.4 million total viewers and 5 percent to 10.5 million in the 18-to-49 demo. But the Oscars remains a top TV event, ranking only behind the Super Bowl and the NFL's conference title games.

If the Academy can tolerate political moments, the Grammys have positively embraced them. In 2014, the show conducted an on-air marriage of 34 couples — gay and straight — with Queen Latifah officiating while Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performed "Same Love." In 2015, Barack Obama delivered a message condemning campus rape during the telecast. "We're an entertainment show that hopefully presents good performances," says veteran Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich. "Maybe people also learn more about who these artists are beyond their lyrics. We don't stifle that; we encourage it. I don't think we can make a show that is designed to be too homogenous."

One top network executive says it may be easier for the Grammys or the Oscars to handle political statements than it is for the Emmys. In television, "you're programming every day to affiliates in Iowa and Nebraska and Kansas. There is a chance you could insult or offend a good chunk of your audience." And viewers may be more reactive to seeing stars of TV shows address political issues. "Meryl is a big movie star," he says, "not like a television character whom you're relating to on an ongoing basis."

But with a Trump administration, this executive predicts Hollywood will turn up the volume during awards shows, especially in the weeks following the inauguration. And that could spell controversy. "Politics and entertainment are intersecting more deeply, especially when you have a president who has been critical of art," he says. "It could make television more unpredictable."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.