Last year, I made a prediction after the Academy Awards show – and I was wrong.
I was convinced after the 2019 disjointed, meandering production, the Oscars executive team would come to its collective senses, and hire a host for this year's show. But no, the Academy believed last February's ratings bump as real, even though it was a false positive at best. Like a GM trying to save a few bucks after firing the morning show, going “host-less” for the second consecutive year was about as messy as you could get.
It's like the Academy viewed the kerfuffle over Kevin Hart's homophobic remarks and subsequent cancellation as a blessing in disguise. After gutting out these last two shows, it was not. And while the Academy might be wise to steer clear of the “shock jock” approach taken by its upstart competitor, the Golden Globes continuing to flaunt convention with the dependably offensive Ricky Gervais, even a “zookeeper” would have been welcome last night.
And not even a bunch of surprises – the Oscar(s) going to “Parasite,” a brilliant foreign-language film (when do they stop using this label?) about class warfare of all things, Eminem showing up for no apparent reason, and Billie Eilish singing a Beatles song – couldn't save the Oscars so in need of someone to direct the traffic, set up bits, introduce musical segments, forward promote, and actually host a show that's traditionally been a train wreck of unscripted, unplugged celebrities.
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The evening, in fact, started out with a cold open, and no introduction of Janelle Monáe doing her best Mr. Rogers, followed quickly by Brad Pitt acting like a midday guy trying to be funny, clever, and political. Even in a room full of sympathizers and those happy he finally walked away with an acting Oscar, it was a dud.
Maybe it was Howard Stern coined the term “zookeeper” as a way to derisively reposition mindless, scripted morning shows that simple direct the activity among an ensemble cast, rather than do cutting edge radio.
But the Academy could've used someone like Scott Shannon or John deBella, two of the best in the business. I never thought I'd miss Ryan Seacrest after the red carpet show so much, but he would have brought continuity, flow, and logic to this hodgepodge of glitz and overindulgence.
There are so many talented, funny, clever celebrities in the Oscar community who could perform this role, but somehow, the Academy mistakenly thinks they can get away with voicetracking with the production guy during its most important daypart.
The New York Times referred to this year's show as “driverless,” but even an autonomous car knows where it's going.
Presenters introduced other presenters – for some reason. And musical guests like Randy Newman and Chrissy Metz weren't introduced at all. Vh1 Pop-Up factroids weren't even used to remind us that Newman has earned 20 Oscar nominations, and two gold statues under his belt. I'm sure Billie Eilish had no clue who the hell Newman is. Nor did millions of viewers.
An Oscars host wouldn't have to offend or rail against management and the other stars on the show. They just have to provide the flow that a variety/awards show demands. These are always sprawling, largely unplanned productions – the perfect place for a talented host to have just enough presence to keep it moving and represent all of us at home trying to watch it.
In past years, Steve Martin, Chris Rock (both of whom made an uncomfortable cameo together at the start of the show, looking like a couple of highly paid stars being replaced by a voicetracker), Billy Crystal, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Neil Patrick Harris, Whoopi Goldberg, or Ellen Degeneres, would have been behind the wheel of this sprawling mess. But not this year.
Most of them were probably sitting at home with all of us, shaking their heads at the Academy's wrong-headed programming philosophy. As Billy Crystal lamented to Kimmel the other night, “The problem with the no-host thing, perhaps, is that there's not somebody out there to capitalize on that moment, like you did when the wrong best picture was nominated.”
If there was ever evidence that consumers need to be guided and directed by a friendly, helpful Sherpa, it was the Oscars. The lack of branding, clarity, and anticipation was palpable. There were times where awards went to deserving individuals who were named – without mentioning the film – making it even more confusing for those of us to follow along at home, in our media rooms, man caves, or rec rooms.
The audio analogies are obvious. Last night's Academy Award debacle was more proof positive that while faceless playlists and segued music can be listenable for a while, a sense of time, a sense of place, a surprise or two, and companionship are what great hosts bring to radio stations, whether they're in Chattanooga or Chicago.
When the ratings are released later today, I may be sitting down to delicious crow dinner tonight. Maybe millions of people around the globe still watch the Academy Awards because of the celebrity, the fashions, the list of deceased stars, and seeing their favorite actors and actresses under very different and often awkward circumstances.
But even “breaking format” a handful of times last night with a surprise or two couldn't save a show so in need of a PD and a smart host.
Even a zookeeper.
Ratings Update, 2:25pm ET, Feb 10th – The Hollywood Reporter says ratings hit “all-time lows' for last night's Academy Awards show. Last year, more than 29 million watched the Oscars. But this year, the ratings fell below 24 million, including a 31% drop among those covetedd 18-49 year-old adults. Bottom line: No crow for me!
Correction: The original version of this post indicated that Detroiter Randy Thomas was the VO artist for the show. Not this year. It turns out the voice you heard was Melissa Disney. Hopefully, Randy will be back in 2021. – FJ