Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention.
And that was on display last night at the Oscars – a tired, overproduced awards show that has lost much of its magic over the years. And in the face of declining ratings, eroding interest, and more box office losses thanks to Netflix and its streaming video siblings, this was shaping up to be another mediocre year.
And then disaster struck when comedian Kevin Hart pulled out of the hosting role over a controversy about homophobic tweets. In a year where African-American actors, filmmakers, and other pros were up for those coveted Oscars, a talented black host had great appeal.
Until it didn't.
And rather than scramble around for a replacement, the Academy opted to try something a little different:
They went “jockless.”
With no host, they were taking a huge risk. Or were they?
The show has floundered, along with most other awards fests and live TV spectaculars. The Grammy Awards continues to suffer, and the best the Super Bowl could do was book a second tier act for its halftime show.
So, without a host, the Academy cast its fate to the fickle Hollywood winds…and came out a winner.
I was on a plane last night, so the best I could do was “watch” on Twitter. And the reactions were more than a little interesting. About midway through the show I tweeted this:
#Oscars Does the show need a host?
And the reactions were fast, furious, and consistent:
Now, realistically, the show's producers did a nice job of “programming” under duress, starting with a riveting performance by Queen (featuring Adam Lambert).
And as it turned out, Rami Malek capturing the gold statuette for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury was the perfect Hollywood ending for a rock n' roll film that was not especially well-received when it was released.
And luckily for the Academy, “Green Book” took the Oscar for Best Picture, besting out the favored Netflix film, “Roma.” There had been much controversy in the weeks leading up to last night over the possibility that a streaming entrant could take the Academy's biggest award. How weird would it have been to turn off the Oscars during its credits, pop on Netflix, and watch the Best Picture on-demand?
The show ran more efficiently, too. Despite the usual overwrought speeches and other Oscar strangeness, the show wrapped up much earlier than its usual exhausting midnight ending. Like a “jockless” radio station, there was more room for actual content with all that “banter.”
Hopefully, no radio executives were watching, because the idea of “going jockless” has been on the drawing boards for many stations these past few decades. Highlighted by the Jack-FM format where the only “personality” is the often brilliant writing and voice talent in between songs, the temptation to “mail in” radio without the expense and aggravation of an airstaff has always been a temptation.
Yesterday, The New York Times made the case for personality in a story by Alex Wong, “Their News Isn't New; Sports anchors in the Era of Social Media.”
Focusing on ESPN anchor, Scott Van Pelt, the story made the point that sports highlights are now everywhere. While “Sports Center” was once
“must see TV” at the end of the day, we now know the scores and in many cases, have seen all the great clips by the time Van Pelt mics up.
So, what's his and ESPN's secret sauce?
It's personality, humor, humanity – all the quality that makes for a great morning or personality show on the radio. As Van Pelt points out, “It's a great reminder of the power of the microphone we hold in our hands.”
As highlights become as disposable as say, songs, what makes for an entertaining broadcast. Van Pelt explains that every sports reporter – just like every radio DJ or host – is trying to solve the on-demand Rubik's Cube:
“Every person covering sports is trying to figure out the riddle.”
Fox Sports host Jay Onrait believes “Personality is what's going to rule the next phase of television.”
Don't tell that to the board of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who may be celebrating this morning. They're thinking they not only dodged a bullet, but may have inadvertently innovated their way out of their hosting quagmire.
Radio shouldn't take solace in Oscar's lucky break. As the ESPN story clearly shows, these same principles are very much in play on the FM dial.
What can a midday host bring to his radio show that you cannot get from a Spotify playlist or streaming songs on YouTube?
How do radio programmers address the fan experience challenge presented by music streaming, subscription playlists, and commercial loads that make it difficult to “stay tuned?”
Meantime, one aspect of the Oscars show incorporated radio in the best possible way. The fantastic female booth announcer you hear last night was none other than radio star, Randy Thomas.
This wasn't Randy's first Oscar rodeo. Far from it. She's provided her voice artistry for the 10th time for this show, making history when she was the first woman who handled this duty for the first time in 1993.
For Randy, it's not about personality, but efficiency and accuracy. As she told CTV News, “I read the copy that's written for me, generally what you'll be hearing me do is introducing presenters and reading the winner walk-up.”
Nothing more, nothing less, but doing it with class and style.
But the Oscars needs more than a great voice artist, comedy schtick, and musical performances. Last night's show was reminiscent of a new radio station that signs on “jockless.”
Oftentimes, the reaction from listeners is overwhelmingly positive – at the outset. It can be refreshing to hear a clean, smooth broadcast – “without all the talk.”
At least for a while. But it doesn't take much time before the audience clamors for more. Music alone just isn't enough to sustain interest and enthusiasm. Like “hostless” sports highlights, consumers can program it themselves.
Like live radio and TV, the Academy will have to innovate its way out of its rut with personality, creativity, and making an emotional connection with its audience.
Next year, the Oscars will have a host.
Thanks to veteran broadcast executive, Barry Drake, for the inspiration.