Ratings are sinking. Academy members are revolting. ABC is (reportedly) meddling. But there’s a simple cure — cut the cord
Several current nominees, including directors Steven Spielberg, Jane Campion and Denis Villeneuve, lobbed public attacks against the change. One high-profile insurgent, Oscar-winning sound mixer Tom Fleischman, who’s worked on everything from “The Silence of the Lambs” to “Goodfellas,” went so far as to resign from the Academy in protest.
Meanwhile, ratings for the beleaguered ceremony have been plummeting, with last year’s show drawing an all-time low of 10.4 million viewers. Not surprisingly, ABC, which is paying about $100 million a year for the broadcast rights, is said to be as ornery as the Montana rancher Benedict Cumberbatch plays in that nominated Western that a lot of folks hate — especially Sam Elliott — but that got 12 nominations anyway and might actually win Best Picture.
In fact, it’s been reported, at least by one outlet, that the whole reason the Academy dropped those eight below-the-line categories was that ABC forced it to, threatening to pull the plug on the broadcast if it didn’t shorten the show and liven things up.
To be fair, sources close to ABC deny that it demanded anything from the Academy and, frankly, it’s hard to believe that the network would flush away $100 million in licensing fees over a few dull speeches. Whatever happened, though, the point remains the same: The Academy Awards, the literal gold standard for excellence in the entertainment industry, a broadcast event that once united the entire nation, even the world, now looks like it’s about to faceplant into the orchestra pit.
Happily, though, there’s a solution for all this Oscar Sturm und Drang, one that’s been hiding in plain sight for years. It rhymes with Shmetflix. Or maybe Schmamazon. Or perhaps HBOSchmax.
Cutting the cord and streaming the Oscars is the obvious move for the Academy to get the show out of its current audience-dwindling funk. The move would instantly trim the show of about 45 minutes’ worth of commercial breaks, enough time to give Tom Fleischman and every member of his extended family their own lifetime achievement awards.
Without advertisers — and a ratings-focused network that depends on them — the Academy could finally free itself of meddling sponsors and livestream all the boring below-the-line awards it wants. It could shrink Best Picture back to five nominees, like all the other categories, instead of making room for 10 (thanks to a 2009 rule change intended to attract more mainstream nominees but that backfired spectacularly, reeling in ever-more esoteric flicks, like, say, that subtitled Best Picture nominee this year “Drive My Car,” about a depressed theater director driving around Japan in a red Saab for three hours).
Technically, ABC’s contract with the Academy marries it to the Oscars until 2028. Details of that arrangement aren’t fully public, but enough is known to suggest that maybe the network wouldn’t be so averse to a divorce, especially after last year’s ratings disaster, when the viewership dipped to about what an average episode of “The Equalizer” pulls in.
At this point, it’s not even clear if the show makes money for ABC. Total ad revenues from the 50 or so national commercials that air during the Oscars have lately hovered at around $120 million to $130 million a year, but some unknown portion of those dollars get shoveled back to the Academy in ad-sharing deals.
That’s great for the Academy, which is on the hook for producing the show — not a cheap thing, costing upwards of $40 million, according to sources — but where does it leave ABC? Does the network’s share of the ad revenue cover the $100 million it shelled out for the broadcast rights? And even if the answer to that question is yes, one has to wonder how long that will last, especially if viewership numbers continue to tank. Advertisers aren’t likely to continue paying $2 million for a 30-second spot on a show that nobody’s watching.
Most streamers, though, couldn’t care less about advertising. They operate on an alternative revenue matrix. Some are all about selling devices (like Apple TV+). Some are all about selling paper towels (like Amazon Prime Video). Others are all about subscribers and building an “environment” that keeps consumers paying month after month (Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+). But all could, theoretically, profit by taking the Oscars off ABC’s hands.
Netflix hasn’t expressed much interest in livestreaming events, but just think about it. A hundred-million-dollar licensing fee is little more than a rounding error for the cash-rich streamer — it’s basically the cost of four Dave Chappelle specials. And to make it back, all Netflix would have to do is sign up 6 or 7 million new Basic Plan subscribers in the U.S. at $15.99 a month (or 10 to 20 million overseas, where subscription rates are often much lower). For a company that’s already reached near-saturation levels globally — 75 million subscribers in the U.S., 222 million worldwide — the Oscars could be one the few big opportunities left for expansion.
Amazon does have experience with livestreaming — even with livestreaming an awards show. Earlier this week, it presented the 57th annual Academy of Country Music Awards. Viewership numbers for that event haven’t been released, but Amazon offered it free to its 148 million subscribers, which wouldn’t necessarily be the case with the Oscars. Unlike Netflix, Amazon is set up to offer a pay-per-view option; it could make up the $100 million simply by charging $20 to stream the Academy Awards. If just 5 million people clicked “Pay” — about half the audience for last year’s Oscar broadcast — Amazon would be sitting pretty.
HBO Max didn’t livestream the SAG Awards — those ran in real time on parent company WarnerMedia’s TNT and TBS cable channels on Feb. 27 — but it did put the ceremony on its site the next day, so it’s clearly interested in the genre. In fact, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when HBO was merely a pay-cable channel, there were rumors it was bidding against ABC to acquire the Oscars. It failed 25 years ago, but these days HBO Max, with its 74 million U.S. subscribers, is a lot bigger — while the Oscars are a lot smaller — so it might be a better fit.
Then there’s Disney+, sister company of ABC, which has more room for growth, with 43 million U.S. subscribers and about 90 million overseas. Streaming the Oscars could give the streamer its biggest boost since “Hamilton” upped its subscriptions by 74% during the summer of 2020. Even Hulu, another Disney-owned company, could get in the game, although with its business model mixing subscription and advertising, that one might not be much better for the Oscars than where they are now.
But putting aside all these Oscar-nomics, there’s another, even more compelling reason for the Academy Awards to go digital. This show, more than anything else on television, is all about movies and the world’s 100-year love affair with the art form. It belongs in a place filled to the brim with movie fans. And that’s not ABC.
It’s the streamers.