If Major League Baseball wants to feel better about the impression it has made during an offseason quite possibly to be remembered as a countdown to a major work stoppage two years hence, it need look no farther than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which seems to be on a mission to torpedo its signature event, the Oscars.
Kicking things off last summer with an ill-conceived, poorly introduced and sheepishly rescinded Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film category — and then proving utterly incapable of locking down a host from the entire population of the universe — the Academy has now approached the finish line for its February 24 showcase by pushing four of its 24 categories from the main run of show to commercial breaks, with speeches taped for later. It’s a choice that has the double bonus of absolutely alienating the film industry’s core practitioners and fans, while doing nothing to retain viewers that otherwise are going astray.
“I don’t have to pay attention to the cinematography award, so now I’ll watch.” By what logic does any viewer on the Oscar telecast fence utter this statement?
The Academy and its broadcast partner, ABC, have become utterly enslaved by the notion that the Oscars are too long. But honestly, length of the show isn’t a problem, or even a symptom of a problem. Instead of focusing on trying to cram a show that tends toward four hours into three, the Academy and ABC should dig deep and aspire to make the best dang show it can, stopwatches be damned.
You are not timekeepers. You are entertainers. The content should dictate the length, not the reverse. Genuflecting to a ticking clock is a surrender, and it poisons your broadcast to do so. In making this week’s announcement, the Academy has guaranteed that — even if the Oscars finish under the self-imposed three-hour time limit — anyone paying attention to this stuff will be focused on how much time is passing, not how quick or enjoyable that time is. And of the rest, few will notice the difference.
I don’t consider the NFL a role model for much, but you don’t see anyone there worried about the clock — even in an era when their ratings are at risk and the sport itself is under no small level of criticism. Quite the opposite: The Super Bowl and all its attendant pageantry are more bloated than ever. Super Bowl Sunday is an event you can time with a sundial — it’s football’s day, all day — and you get the sense that the league won’t be satisfied until it’s taken over the entire weekend, week, month and year.
The NFL understands that even if you program badly, even if you pick a halftime act that apparently nobody wants to see and surround it with a touchdown-free game through three quarters, you can come off a winner if you believe in your core product. How many Americans even know how long this year’s Super Bowl lasted from anthem to confetti? Of course, it was too long. Of course, it didn’t matter. It’s the Super Bowl.
MLB has its own problems, not the least of which are that Manny Machado and Bryce Harper appear just as likely to fill the Oscar hosting vacancy as any spot on a big-league team’s roster this month. And it definitely bothers me that to some extent, MLB is contemplating changes its own rules — the designated hitter, pitch clocks, three-batter minimums for relievers, bans on defensive shifts — out a culture of fear resembling the Academy’s, as well as no small amount of self-loathing from some prominent figures in the game.
But at least baseball has the excuse of needing to please its audience every day from March through October. Even its crowning event is spread over a week, give or take. By contrast, however bloated the Oscars might be, the Academy and ABC only have to hold their audience’s attention one night a year. They are doing the equivalent of making changes to ensure that the seventh game of the World Series runs exactly 180 minutes and not a second longer.
It’s not that I have any real interest tonight in sweating the details of the Oscars. I just want the Academy to stop being embarrassed about how much time it takes to celebrate a year’s worth of filmmaking.