Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

New Statesman -- February 21, 2005

It's all in the presentation

With Chris Rock, the Oscars has a new host and a new format to boost the ratings -- and if they don't go up... Welcome back Mr. Crystal.

by Ian Garrick Mason

Hollywood has never been noted for its philosophers. Yet to host this year's Oscar ceremony, the Academy has hired a man who is as comfortable discussing the similarities between the US government and organised crime - "They take money out your cheque every week, then they want some more money in April. What kind of gangster shit is that?" - as he is the sociological complexities of modern capitalism - "Every town got two malls. They got the white mall, and the mall white people used to go to."

Chris Rock is an experiment for the Academy, whose history has been distinguished by a few dominant hosts. The longest reign was that of Bob Hope, who hosted the show (alone or with others) 18 times between 1940 and 1978. Johnny Carson dominated the subsequent period even more, hosting five times from 1979 to 1984. He in turn gave way to the age of Billy Crystal, who has hosted eight of the 15 shows since 1990.

But no producer makes his or her mark simply by hiring the same host as last year, and no one wants the Oscars to become "The Billy Crystal Variety Hour", so there is more than one good reason to shake things up a bit. Whoopi Goldberg was an excellent experimental choice, wry and mischievous without posing any risk of profanity-laced excursions into politics. As a result, she has been asked to host the Awards four times.

Yet not all experiments are repeated. David Letterman, loved by millions of late-night viewers, was a one-show wonder in 1995, his humour proving a little too quirky for a mainstream audience. His "Uma, Oprah" juxtaposition didn't get any funnier the more he said it - although, perhaps surprisingly, his performance did not damage the ratings for that year.

In the decade since then, however, audiences have dwindled, and that has been the main driver of change. The Oscars now have to compete in a television schedule choked with high-profile award shows - the Golden Globes, People's Choice, Screen Actors Guild, not to mention the Grammy Awards. In 2003, ratings hovered near their all-time low. Thus, in 2004, the Academy tried two things: it brought back Billy Crystal and brought forward the show from late March to late February in an effort to shorten the awards season.

Ratings went up, but not enough. This year, the producers are changing both the host and the format. According to the telecast director Louis J. Horvitz, the stage will jut out into the audience "like the yellow brick road", and some of the awards will be presented in new ways. These will include the nominees gathering on stage before the winner is announced and the winner receiving the statuette from a presenter in the audience. "This set would not work for Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg," the Academy Awards producer Gil Cates has said. "But we think the audience will realise it is a very good fit with Chris."

The 2006 ceremony will depend on the success of this year's experiment. If ratings improve again, next year's show may feature Chris Rock yelling "Yo! Congratulations!" and lobbing a heavy golden statuette at a seated winner - a presentation approach that could not only save valuable time but also increase the tension as viewers wait to see whether the Oscar will be caught, dropped or intercepted by another actor.

If ratings decline, the Academy would normally respond either by finding a new host or by changing the format. But given that Rock is so tied to the design of this show, there might be no choice at all - only a quick retreat to the familiar, dignified format and to the redoubtable Crystal as host.

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