We don't dare not watch the Oscars

What if something interesting happened the one year we didn't tune in to the Academy Awards?

By Eric Deggans, Times TV/media critic
Published February 22, 2008

Every year, complaints about the Academy Awards ceremony pile up like bad hairdos in a Coen brothers movie.

It's too long. It's too predictable. The host is terrible. The host is great, but the presenters are terrible. The fashions are awful. The TV ratings are down.

So why do 40-million of us return to this madness, year after year?

Why do we watch the Oscars?

"It's the Super Bowl of pop culture. . . and much like the Super Bowl, it usually sucks,"said humorist Andy Borowitz, who co-produced the film Pleasantville and has written a screenplay for Sasha Baron Cohen's next movie.

"It's bloated, it's too long, usually there are no surprises, it's usually a blowout and like the Super Bowl, the musical performances are terrible," he said, laughing. "The only reason I watch the Oscars is because there's always that chance that someone will humiliate themselves in a career-ending way. It's a very lonely vigil."

Each year, it seems critics and experts line up to take a shot at the ceremony that stands alongside football's great championship and perhaps American Idol as one of the few TV events we all still watch together.

The Los Angeles Times noted four of this year's five nominees for best picture made less money than middlebrow comedies such as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Wild Hogs. In December, Variety bemoaned the explosion of Web sites and media outlets trying to assess movies' Oscar chances, fretting that "the relative quality of a film can often be negotiable or even irrelevant."

Oscars onstage gaffes are legendary, from David Letterman's flat "Uma . . . (meet) Oprah" joke to Rob Lowe's disastrous duet with Snow White at the 1990 ceremony. A professor at Rutgers University even proved that casting an Oscar winner in a film doesn't help boost its profitability (can anyone remember the last hit Mira Sorvino or Marisa Tomei appeared in?).

Longtime Oscars watcher Tom O'Neil, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times' showbiz awards Web site The Envelope.com, said Americans take more familiar forms of entertainment for granted - even when they are of higher quality than most films.

"We have this exaggerated respect for the silver screen, while we dismiss the medium we love the most, the boob tube," said O'Neil, author of a book on movie awards and TV's Emmy awards. "We will suffer through four awards for sound mixing and film editing to get to the bestowing of a few awards which will not be remembered in a few years to stars who will mostly be forgotten."

But unlike many fans, O'Neil doesn't watch the Oscars for tips on fashion or watercooler talk; he uses the ceremony's honors to peer into the minds of Hollywood's elite. And he wonders if the lack of blockbuster contenders will make the ceremony even less popular than usual.

"The Oscar shows with the highest viewership are the ones with movies in contention which have the most fans rooting for them," said O'Neil. "Now that the Oscars are on, the question is: Will people care?"

Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology, thinks so.

He says viewers still perceive movie stars as mostly larger-than-life compared with TV actors, who regularly appear in their homes on the small screen. And TV awards shows too often honor the same series, while the Oscars has a fresh crop of nominees each year.

"Part of it is just that it's been around so long," said Fischoff, noting Oscar will celebrate his 80th birthday this year. "Over the years, it's been built up to such an iconic reputation, it very hard to out-opulence it."

Borowitz had a more direct explanation.

"The movies are like the British royal family of pop culture; they're insignificant, but we can't help putting them on a pedestal," he said. "And as movies become more insignificant, movie stars become more important - they're like rare, endangered birds we have to keep alive with magazine covers and gossip columns."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.