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How to make the Oscars must-see TV again

by John Horn , Darby Maloney, and Cameron Kell | The Frame

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Jimmy Kimmel will host the 89th Oscars this Sunday, but is he enough to turn the show's flagging ratings around? Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Oscars might be Hollywood's biggest night, but fewer people are tuning in each year.

Last year, 34.3 million people watched the Academy Awards. That was the lowest viewership for the awards show since 2008's record-setting low of 32 million — and it's a far cry from 2014's count of 43.74 million viewers.

So what can the Academy do to turn the Oscars into must-watch television? Well, our first idea is not to bring back James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts.

James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts

Jen Chaney and E. Alex Jung of Vulture.com's TV Podcast joined The Awards Show Show co-hosts John Horn and Kyle Buchanan to talk about the Academy's viewership troubles, how the Oscars could learn from other awards shows and how the show could benefit from some spontaneity.

Interview Highlights

On the Oscars and spontaneity

Chaney: I think the most important thing they could do is take a minimalist approach, and just do what they're supposed to do — present the awards, not spend too much time on silly bits and musical numbers. The truth is that what makes any live event really great are surprise, spontaneous moments, and by the nature of spontaneity, you cannot plan for that.

Jung: I think Jen's right in terms of allowing room for spontaneity to happen, and a lot of that spontaneity is going to come from actors giving speeches. You saw people like Mahershala Ali give really beautiful, subtle speeches, and then you had Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes give a firebrand, drop-the-mic kind of moment. I think the Oscars could learn from letting people have space to do that, because you're not going to have Nicki Minaj asking Miley Cyrus, "What's good?" Which is unfortunate.

Horn: I have to agree, the ceremony lives and dies by the acceptance speeches, and there's so many bad speeches every year. They should build a trapdoor right underneath the podium, and if you say the words, "my team at CAA," or "my group at WME," it opens and you fall through the stage. If you're a documentary short filmmaker, no one is going to listen to you more than they're going to on Oscar night. Then you get up there and you start thanking your publicist? Use that opportunity to say something meaningful.

On Jimmy Kimmel hosting

Jung: I like him at the ABC Upfronts. I feel like that's a good venue for him, where he gets to make fun of networks, but I do sort of feel like... like, when you go into a Thai restaurant, and they ask you what spice level you want, and they give the option of "foreigner spicy"? That's what Jimmy Kimmel feels like to me. He'll definitely do a couple obligatory jokes about Donald Trump or the current political climate, but I don't think he's the kind of person who will hit or meet the current moment the way that I suspect a lot of people will be itching for.

Chaney: I agree with that, and one of my frustrations from the past year of watching award shows is that literally every award show has been hosted by whoever hosts the late-night talk show on the network that was broadcasting the award show. It just gets very boring.

The least exciting thing the Academy Awards could have done was choose Jimmy Kimmel — not because of Jimmy Kimmel, but because that's what every other awards show is doing at this point. That part of it is just not exciting.

Obviously, they've tried to mix things up in the past and it hasn't always worked out for them in terms of the rating, but I still like it when they try to choose different people, especially because all the late-night hosts are still white dudes. So this is another way in which we're not getting an opportunity to hear from women, people of color, or other voices.

On the larger number of Best Picture nominees

Horn: One of the things the academy tried was expanding the Best Picture race to as many as 10 nominees, and yet the ratings have precipitously declined since 2014 — they've lost 10 million viewers over the last two years. So if you're ABC or if you're producing this show, what can you do to make people tune in?

Chaney: I mean, that's the thing, it really does hinge on the movies. If you look back at the past 20 years, the telecasts that were the most highly-rated were "Titanic" and "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King." Those were huge, widely-loved movies that were nominated for tons of awards.

"La La Land" was also nominated for tons of awards, but I don't think it's a mainstream, beloved movie in the same way that those two were. And when you have that situation, I think they'd be wise to play up the spontaneity, like, "What's somebody going to say politically? Who knows, tune in and find out!" That's what I'd be watching for.

Horn: Is it time to bring back Debbie Allen and the "Solid Gold" dance team? Or was it interpretive dancing?

Chaney: I am in favor of anything that brings back solid gold. Or Rob Lowe dancing with Snow White again, I'd be up for that.

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