When people talk about “fixing” the Oscars, the discussion inevitably becomes a debate about whom the Oscars are for. But the Oscars aren’t a monolith for any one audience; different parts of the show appeal to different people. If you don’t begin with that understanding, then the broadcast really can’t be fixed.
The key question in trying to fix the Oscars is how to give each type of audience exactly what they want and nothing they don’t want. How does the audience that just wants to see the big awards handed out only get that? How does the audience that just wants to watch musical performances or host monologues only get that? And how does the audience that actually wants to see all of it manage to keep everything, without the annual debate of what should get cut?
Throughout its lifetime, the Oscar telecast has operated by a simple strategy: If viewers don’t know what’s coming next, they’ll watch the whole thing. And that was certainly true for most of the show’s seven-decade TV history. But it’s not true anymore. We’re now in an on-demand viewing culture, and audiences expect to watch exactly what they want, when they want. If Oscar viewers don’t know whether the next award will be Brad Pitt winning Best Supporting Actor or if it’ll be the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film, many people won’t keep watching to find out. They’ll just tune out of the entire thing and catch the highlights in the morning.
But these are fixable problems. It’s not hard to give casual Oscar viewers only the major awards they want while still giving the Oscar diehards absolutely everything. You just have to be open and honest about scheduling instead of trying to trick audiences into watching a four-hour show full of awards that some people don’t care about.
Fixing the Oscars requires more than the same old annual debates over which categories or performances should be included in the show (because the answer is always “all of them”). Instead, it demands a structural reimagining of what the show looks like. Here’s how the Oscars should go:
5:30 p.m. EST to 7:30 p.m. EST: The First Half (a.k.a. the Cinephile Show)
- A popular but slightly more niche star hosts: someone like Bill Hader, Issa Rae, or Jenny Slate.
- Twelve Oscars are presented: the seven craft categories (Best Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, Sound, and Visual Effects), the three shorts categories (Best Animated Short, Documentary Short, and Live Action Short), and the Oscars for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Film.
- Two honorary Oscars (of the four the Academy traditionally hands out each year) are presented to major figures in film history who aren’t particularly well-known to mass audiences (think of recent recipients like Liv Ullmann, Wes Studi, Charles Burnett, and Agnès Varda).
7:30 p.m. EST to 8:30 p.m. EST: The Halftime Show
- The halftime show takes place off-site (like at the Hollywood Bowl).
- Performances of all five Best Original Song nominees are given, and excerpts of all five nominated film scores are played.
- The in memoriam presentation is played.
- Every commercial during the halftime show debuts a major new film trailer.
8:30 p.m. EST to 10:30 p.m. EST: The Second Half (a.k.a. the Main Event)
- A big star hosts the second half: someone like Tom Holland, the Rock, or Jennifer Lawrence.
- Eleven Oscars are presented: the two music categories, Best Animated Feature, the two screenplay categories, the four acting categories, Best Director, and Best Picture.
- The order of these categories is announced ahead of time and sometimes appears on-screen (like they do with ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption) so audiences always know what’s coming and how far away it is.
- The remaining two honorary Oscars (of the traditional four) are presented, this time to major figures whom mass audiences really care about (like recent recipients Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Chan, Spike Lee, Hayao Miyazaki, Steve Martin, and James Earl Jones).
That’s it, and the ceremony should be over by 10:30 p.m. EST. And before you scoff that you can’t fit that much into two hours, the Screen Actors Guild Awards did it just last week; they presented 13 awards, an in memoriam segment, and the Lifetime Achievement award in barely over two hours. You just have to stop wasting time on constant montages and stale comedy bits and get on with the awards.
Let’s break this plan down by its various elements and talk about why it would work.
Length and Time
When people complain that the Oscars are too long, they’re mostly griping about two things: The show ends too late at night, and there’s way too much time between the few parts of the show they actually care about. Both of these problems can be addressed without truncating the actual length of the show or cutting important segments (and pissing off your core audience). All you have to do is start the show earlier in the day, package together the parts casual viewers care about, and tell the audience exactly when they can see those parts.
Traditionally, the Oscars have always separated the four acting awards by putting the two supporting categories toward the beginning of the show and the two lead categories toward the end. But that doesn’t fly in our current streaming reality, and viewers who might be interested in seeing all four acting categories aren’t going to watch multiple hours of content they don’t care about just to pass the time between the few parts they do want to see. That’s why the six biggest categories all need to be bunched together at the end, to create a final hour that casual viewers can get invested in. Given the ratings situation the Oscars are in, getting people to tune in for an hour is definitely better than nothing.
And if that final hour is before people would rather be in bed, even better! The Super Bowl has kicked off at 6:30 p.m. EST for almost 30 years because the NFL understands that the climactic end of its biggest event should happen before most of the country wants to go to sleep. The fact that the Oscars have apparently never understood this remains mind boggling.
Even last year, despite several categories being announced during the preshow and then edited into the ceremony to try to save time, Best Picture wasn’t announced until around 11:35 at night on the East Coast. The issue isn’t that the show is too long; it’s that it ends too late. Start it at 5:30, let it be the full five hours it deserves to be (more ad revenue!), and end it before viewers are in bed. I promise the stars can manage to get ready in time for a 2:30 p.m. West Coast start. These people do 6 a.m. call times on the reg.
One of the consistently cited reasons for why viewers have stopped caring about the Oscars in recent years is that the nominated films have become more niche. That’s sort of true (though it’s more complicated than that), but an easy way to address that is by bringing the honorary Oscars back to the main telecast. The honorary awards used to be a beloved part of the Oscars, but they were shunted to their own event when the Best Picture lineup first expanded in 2009, and that ceremony has remained frustratingly un-televised for its entire 14-year existence.
That means that when Samuel L. Jackson—the highest-grossing actor in the history of movies—was given a lifetime achievement award from the Oscars last year, he was forced to accept it off camera. Meanwhile, the Oscar telecast that he could have been giving an acceptance speech on languished with some of its lowest ratings ever. I’m not arguing that there’s a direct cause and effect there, but they’re also not wholly unrelated issues.
The Academy’s board of governors typically gives out four honorary Oscars per year. Sometimes, a recipient is honored specifically for their philanthropic work (they receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award), but usually, recipients are major figures in the history of cinema who never received a competitive Oscar and are finally being recognized for their bodies of work. These lifetime achievement Oscars should be brought back to the main show, with two given out during the first half (to craft artists, documentarians, or titans of international cinema) and two given out during the second half (to widely beloved writers, musicians, actors, or directors).
It’s no secret which parts of the Oscars don’t have much appeal to casual viewers, but cutting those parts from the show isn’t the answer, and the constant threats and pleas to do so only serve to alienate the Oscars’ core fan base without actually bringing in any new viewers. A simple solution is to move all of the more niche categories to the first, earlier half of the show.
This would ensure all of these categories are still televised live (unlike last year’s embarrassing charade) and are still very much a key part of the Oscar telecast but with a basic acknowledgement that, yes, these are the categories many viewers are less interested in. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s not disrespectful to these categories—certainly not more than having those awards taped or cut altogether. In our current Oscar reality, we have to endure the same complaints year after year about the horrors of casual Oscar viewers apparently being forced at gunpoint to watch an editor accept an award. The craft nominees silently suffer through that whining, and that’s infinitely more disrespectful than just moving all of the craft categories to the first half.
This way, the craft categories sort of have their own show, where they’re the main attraction, without disrespecting those categories by trying to throw that show on a different evening, as an entirely separate event from the “important” Oscars.
Anyone who’s ever been to a Super Bowl party knows that for many of the people in attendance, the halftime show and the commercials are the main draws. Why can’t the Oscars learn from this? The show is already long, but in its current state, it’s just long with no structure. If the Oscars were given a clearly defined structure—first half, halftime show, second half—they could run longer without seeming nearly as long because things would be broken up, and viewers would always know how far along the show is.
This is another case where letting viewers know when things will happen really matters. Simply announcing that Rihanna and Lady Gaga (who are both nominated for Best Original Song this year) will perform one song, at some unknown point in a long-ass show, is just as likely to annoy viewers faced with sitting through four hours of the Oscars as it is to excite them. But what if Rihanna and Lady Gaga were performing back-to-back, with several other musical stars, at exactly 7:30 p.m.? That’s more enticing, right?
So why not extrapolate on that and give the Oscars a real halftime show? Hold it at another location so that you can have the energy of a real crowd that’s there for the music (and so the Oscar attendees at the Dolby Theatre can spend an hour mingling, stretching their legs, and boozing up), and make it a real celebration of the year in film music.
And what if all of the ads during that halftime show were trailer premieres for upcoming movies? Give every studio two minutes of commercial time (whether they use it on one trailer or break it up into multiple trailers is up to them), and let them showcase their best stuff. They’ll be premiering their trailers to an audience that demonstrably cares about movies, and anyone that just tunes in to see, say, a new Marvel trailer might end up seeing other trailers they’re interested in. Every year, we hear complaints that comic book movies aren’t recognized at the Oscars, but maybe that moaning would subside if comic book movies were at least showcasing world premieres of their trailers during the show. And it’s a much better compromise than last year’s pathetic “celebration” of the Flash entering the Speed Force.
Here it is, the two-hour Oscars every casual fan says they want: all the major awards in a row, broken up only by two lifetime achievement awards given out to living legends, and nary a Best Sound Oscar in sight. It’s the best way for the Oscars to have their cake and eat it too; give us a five-hour show with absolutely everything the diehards want, but tell casual viewers exactly which two hours are for them, and stop trying to get them to care about categories they never will.
Of course, the really tricky part would be figuring out how to market this whole endeavor, to successfully communicate what audiences should expect and what they might want to tune in for, without just blatantly saying, “Hey, you only have to watch the last two hours!” But if Hollywood marketing strategists could get people to love Don’t Look Up (I kid, I kid), then truly anything is possible. (On that note, remember, Oscars: Making fun of how bad some of the nominees are is our job as the media, not something you should be actively doing on the telecast. No more host jokes about how long or boring some of the Best Picture contenders are, please.)
Although no voting body gets it right all the time, more Best Picture winners than not are beloved classics, and that tradition is still alive in recent winners like Parasite and Moonlight, which expanded notions of how progressive and tapped-in the Oscars can be. They remain a wonderful celebration of movies, which is why they’re worth protecting and reimagining for future generations to continue enjoying (and arguing about).
Daniel Joyaux is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Roger Ebert, Rotten Tomatoes, The Verge, and Cosmopolitan, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @Thirdmanmovies and on Letterboxd at Djoyaux.