The 2021 Oscars ratings were down a staggering 58% from the previous low of the previous year (2020) which was a similar percentage drop from the year before.
The New York Times tried to blame the pandemic and not the content of the telecasts: "... reflect the pandemic, not a paradigm shift. Without live audiences, the telecasts have been drained of their energy."
That may be true enough as an ancillary issue, but that is not the problem. We know that is not the problem because the Oscars have been in steady decline for several years, long before Covid even raised its ugly head. Toward the end of the NYT article, they contradict their previous quote by barely mentioning the actual underlying problem: " Increasingly, the ceremonies are less about entertainment honors and more about civic issues and progressive politics, which inevitably annoys half the audience."
Or to put it bluntly, the Oscars business model is essentially ready for the rubber room, not because of the type of politics, but because of any politics at all. It would be just as bad for the ratings if everyone got up and preached conservative politics if the Oscars were being broadcast from Louisiana. This is what is killing the ratings which is threatening the money which threatens the very institution of the The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, itself.
Personally, I have never been a big fan. I often disagree with most of their choices. In 1977 they did the unthinkable: they gave the best visual effects Oscar to the remake of King Kong which was worse than the effects in the worst Japanese monster laugh-fest while ignoring the genius of Ray Harryhausen for decades. While I was still basically a kid, I hated that. But a broken Oscar operation can be fixed. However, it would be horrendous for the motion picture culture if The Academy vanished altogether, and that is becoming an increasing possibility because of a lack of basic self-control on the part of the participants. The Academy desperately needs what they get from the advertising revenue, and less than 10 million viewers with a bad advertiser demographic is panicsville. Even the Times acknowledged that (surprisingly)
Here are the problems as this critic/filmmaker sees them, currently:
1. TV watching is down anyway thanks to alternative viewing options, of course. This is a huge issue because you need to expand your previous business model to be more inclusive as the broadcast venue evaporates. They did the reverse: they went less inclusive and did so stridently, which is a direct insult to 50% of the audience. Whether you agree with them or not, you want them to tune in for the advertising numbers.
2. It's no secret that when a star gets political, he or she loses half their potential audience. Political pundits shore up their core audience by going extreme. The Oscars is not that. The Oscars is entirely structured toward a purpose of non-political entertainment, so every strident speech badly sabotages their own business model.
3. The views expressed are occasionally extreme, not simply one-sided. This means you will only get 20% of a falling TV audience generally instead of 50% of a falling TV audience generally.
4. There is truth to the old adage, the three things you never discuss in a bar are sex, politics and religion. The Oscars go flat-out on all three, while ALSO divorcing itself from half the population.
5. Another problem is that this is not 1950. The perception of Movie Stars is different today because the studios no longer exist as operational creative factories and therefore they don't groom and create talented stars; a star is now a pretty face that speaks well. That is the slimmest definition of an actor and unless you get lucky, that is what you will likely see on your screen, big or small, so the people at the Oscars are not fractionally as special as they once were in the collective public mind. Once again, this makes it critical to work hard to be inclusive.
The solution is obvious: stop being stridently political and stop it for the sake of the art form as well as the industry. There is a time and place for everything. The viewers are sending this message as loud and clear as can be imagined to the Academy. The question to be seen, probably next year, is if the Academy will set into motion rules next year. Here are two extremely basic suggestions one imagines should have been implemented years ago, frankly:
1. Any winner who brings politics, left or right, and social issues onto the stage will be stripped of their Oscar. The awards ceremonies are not the place for it.
2. Any presenter who brings politics onto the stage will be replaced during a commercial break, including the host, whose fee will also be stripped.
These seem like harsh suggestions in a country with a beloved First Amendment. But when you are given an award, it is given at the generosity of the giver, it is not a constitutional right. When you are employed by a corporation and they say, "You may not talk about this or that" when representing the company paying you, that is the end of you saying this or that or you get fired. All that is legal. In fact, it's basic.
Many in Hollywood may detest anyone who disagrees with their political and social issue views. That's okay. What is not okay is to refuse to apply the modicum of self-control on the stage to the point that you ruin a motion picture institution by driving off so much of the audience that the institution financially collapses. That's what's happening, now, and someone better get tough about fixing it, because the ratings are now so bad that in a year or two they won't be able to get enough advertising revenue to keep the Academy, and the awards, solvent. The needle is now into the warning red line to the point that anyone can see it, because the numbers don't lie. The public is giving the Academy the warning message straight-up with no ice, now: "Stop getting political". The Academy better start paying attention because the audience isn't bluffing, and a slide of this magnitude is usually irreversible due to the entertainment rule of thumb that for each year the ratings go down, a solid - and now critical - percentage of that audience is gone for good.