Please don’t suck: Audience anxiety and fearing the Oscars telecast

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“Please don’t suck!”

That’s what a young man yelled inside the Arclight movie theater in Hollywood four years ago, in response to the trailer for “Raiders of the Lost Ark: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Hundreds of audience members clapped and cheered – we were all thinking it: “Please don’t suck.” As in, please don’t completely destroy the legacy of a franchise beloved by millions.

I imagine Oscar watchers have thought something similar each year as the host, or hosts, for the Academy Awards are announced. There always seems to be a kind of “How do we get the ratings up?” desperation to the show. Every year there’s a new tactic. And every year we cringe with that same sinking feeling those Indiana Jones fans were experiencing – somehow they just knew they were going to be let down.

Last year the Academy’s tactic was “Let’s have young, attractive actors host the Oscars.” So they trotted out the mismatched pairing of Anne Hathaway and James “asleep at the wheel” Franco. It was generally considered to be what young people – the very audience the show’s makers were trying to attract – would call an “epic fail.” (Note to the producers, if you insist on having someone young and appealing to host your live show – give Justin Timberlake a call. Ever see him on “Saturday Night Live”? He’s always the best thing about whatever skit he’s in.)

When popular host Billy Crystal appeared on stage at last year’s show, the audience looked like an airplane full of people who’d been stuck on a tarmac for ten hours and had finally received honey roasted peanuts and beverage service. There was relief in their eyes. Inside they must have been singing “All I Care About” from the musical Chicago: “Where is Billy. Give us Billy. We want Billy. B-I double L-Y. We’re all his. He’s our kind of a guy. And ooh what luck. Cuz here he is.”

Billy Crystal will be hosting the 84th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday. Hopefully this signals a return to “the good old days.” You know, back when the Oscars were reliably entertaining and the producers were smart enough to appeal to the audience that remains faithful to the show year after year.

The puzzling thing about the Academy Awards is that they were ever trying to attract a “young, hip” audience when – according to the Hollywood Reporter – the average age of AMPAS members is 57. Why exactly would “young and hip” viewers tune in to see what older folks think is a good movie? It’s like asking your grandparents what you should download on iTunes.

As bad as that ratings strategy was, there have actually been worse.

In 2005’s show, veteran awards producer Gil Cates tried to give an “American Idol” feel to what is supposed to be the most glamorous night on television. It turned into the Beyonce Knowles variety hour with her seemingly getting up on stage every 20 minutes to belt out a tune. For evidence of how superfluous this was, you need look no further than her ill-conceived duet of best song nominee “Believe” with Josh Groban – they took a solo and turned it into a duet that sounded like a solo… Beyonce’s.

2005 was also the year they tried handing out Oscar statuettes in the audience. How relegating hard-working filmmakers to picking up their Academy Award like they’re buying peanuts at a baseball game was supposed to boost ratings, I’ll never know. Imagine having your one shot at winning an Academy Award and you don’t even get to go on stage. It would be like singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl only to have your mic cut off.

Topping off the tackiness, some Oscar nominees that year appeared on the stage together, and the winner came forward like the last kid standing in the Scripps Spelling Bee. It was an all-time low and is – like the creepy cousin we all have somewhere on our family tree – best not discussed.

The general wisdom goes that the more popular the movies nominated, the bigger the audience. It was certainly true for the year “Titanic” won best picture; a whopping 55 million viewers tuned in. The year the immensely popular “E.T.” lost out to Gandhi was close behind with 53 million viewers.

More often than not, however, the show reaches around 40 million viewers, dipping to an all-time low in 2008 with 32 million people tuning in to see “No Country for Old Men” take best picture. Surely the “bigger the film, bigger the audience” philosophy was in part responsible for the decision to opening the field to up to ten nominees – this way you can catch the big and the small fish.

Never is a quality host more important than a year in which the best picture nominees are not box office hits. And that includes this year when the highest grossing nominee, “The Help,” is not considered a frontrunner. And the one that is, “The Artist,” is just now closing in on thirty million dollars.

Billy Crystal’s last tour of duty on the Oscar stage was 2004’s show, when the blockbuster “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” swept the awards, winning 11 of 11 nominations, including best picture. It was the best of both worlds – the most beloved host in recent memory and an epic film guaranteed to walk away with a pot of gold… statues. The ratings have been sliding ever since. Then again, so has the box office draw of the best picture nominees.

In recent years, the awards shows prior to the Oscars are such great predictors that it’s similar to watching a movie after you’ve seen its 90-minute trailer. With the awards themselves being foregone conclusions in most categories, the real question in the minds of the viewers is, “Will the show be good?”

Those of us who were screaming, “Please don’t suck!” when Brett Ratner was announced as the show’s producer and Eddie Murphy as its host, can rest a little easier now that the Academy has dodged that bullet. Given Mr. Crystal’s excellent track record and enduring popularity, there’s reason to be very optimistic. Surely he won’t deliver the same kind of soul-crushing disappointment that Kingdom of the “Crystal Skull” did.

Patricia Beauchamp is a writer in Los Angeles.