Academy sets three-hour Oscars broadcast, adds popular film category

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is instituting sweeping changes to the Oscars broadcast as it tries to find ways to bolster ratings for the flagging telecast.

In a message to its membership, the group’s president John Bailey and its CEO Dawn Hudson said the broadcast will now include a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film. The group did not provide details on what movies would be eligible and when the award will first be handed out, but its intent is clear.

At one point in its history, Oscar voters routinely named blockbusters such as “Titanic” or “Gladiator” as the year’s best. That’s changed. Recent best picture victors such as “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” and the 2017 winner “The Shape of Water” have been firmly ensconced in the arthouse world, whereas well-reviewed hit films such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” have only been recognized for their technical achievements.

“We have heard from many of you about improvements needed to keep the Oscars and our Academy relevant in a changing world,” Bailey and Hudson wrote in a note to members. “The Board of Governors took this charge seriously.”

The Oscar broadcast has also been slagged as a tedious affair, that is larded with awards and humorous bits that are long-winded without enough of a payoff. To that end, the Academy’s board of governors announced on Wednesday that future broadcasts will be three-hours long.

The 2018 awards show, which clocked in at almost four hours, was the least-watched Oscars to date. Though it pulled in 26.5 million viewers, the ratings were down 19% compared to the previous year.

At the same time that ratings for the show have atrophied, the number of film awards, particularly the televised variety, has ballooned. The Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Critics Choice Awards all are announced prior to the Oscars and often recognize the same actors and filmmakers who go on to win Academy Awards. This can make that final broadcast seem more like a coronation than a surprise-filled evening. To that end, the Academy set an earlier airdate for the 2020 telecast, moving it from Feb. 23 to Feb. 9. Next year’s telecast will still air on Feb. 24, as previously announced.

To accommodate a three-hour ceremony, select categories will be presented during commercial breaks. Winning moments will be edited and later aired during the broadcast. The Tony Awards has taken a similar approach and the Oscars has already moved certain honors, such as its career achievement and humanitarian awards, to a different night in an effort to keep things moving.

Bailey and Hudson said the group’s board of governors, staff and certain working groups of members have spent the last several months discussing improvements to the show.

The moves are likely to be controversial, particularly the decision not to televise certain categories and the creation of the popular film category. In particular, it’s unclear if financially successful films will now get the cold shoulder from voters assessing the year’s best picture because blockbusters have been given their own award.

Of course controversy is nothing new for the non-profit. After being harshly criticized for ignoring performers of color in its 2015 and 2016 broadcasts, the Oscars began to institute sweeping changes. In particular, the group has taken steps to diversify a membership that was primarily older, white, and male. It has set a goal to double the number of women and ethnic minorities in the Academy by 2020.

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