The Oscars’ Ratings Were Terrible Because They Were in April

Learn a lesson from sports

Photo via The Academy

For about 90 seconds, I thought the 2021 Academy Awards were going to be awesome. Regina King, who had a film she directed, One Night in Miami, up for three Oscars the year after she won one for If Beale Street Could Talk, strode into the Oscars like she owned the place. Producer Steven Soderbergh gave her an Ocean’s 11 intro to establish his goal of making the ceremony feel more intimate and personal, and you half expected Vegas fountains to rise gush behind her in celebration. I’d never seen anything like it at the Oscars before. It was exciting. It was new.

Nothing else at the Academy Awards could quite approach that, and all told, the general consensus is that the night was a bit of a dud. The television ratings came out Monday, and they were even more horrific that many had feared, falling more than 64 percent from 2020, which had been the previous low. There are various culprits listed as reasons for the ratings slump, all of them reasonable:

  • No big movies were released and thus overall interest was low.
  • Without the pomp and bluster of the usual Oscars ceremony, the whole thing just felt empty and hallow — even ridiculous.
  • Movie theaters were closed this year, don’t you know?
  • We’re still in a pandemic, and maybe we’re just not in the mood for Brad Pitt right now.

All of these suspects will be sussed out in the coming days as the producers come in for their ritualistic bloodletting. There will be more thinkpieces about What’s wrong with Hollywood? and Are movies over? than any reasonable person could possibly tolerate. But I think there might be a simpler explanation for all this, one that maybe lets Hollywood off the hook a little bit: The Oscars just aren’t supposed to be in April.

The Academy Awards were later than ever this year, in part because they added an extra two months eligibility, which is why films like Judas and the Black Messiah and The United States Versus Billie Holliday were eligible despite being released in 2021. That decision pushed the Oscars back to the unprecedented date of April 25, the latest they’ve been since 1929, the very first ceremony. The Oscars haven’t been in April at all since 1989, and over the last decade, they’ve settled comfortably in February or, at worst, early March.

This delay led to the most protracted Oscar season ever —I don’t know a single entertainment reporter who doesn’t hate their lives and the entire industry right now — and made even the most devoted fans of the nominated films sick of every single one of them by the time the show came out. But worse, it did something that we’ve learned from the last year in an entirely different field of entertainment — sports — that you absolutely cannot do: It messed with the calendar.

2020 featured some of the worst ratings sports has received in decades, despite many predictions that ratings for a sports-deprived public would be through the roof once the games began. There were many theories about this, but the clearest one was the simplest: People’s internal clocks were all messed up. The MLB season didn’t begin until July; the Kentucky Derby moved from May to the fall; the NBA Finals, usually in June, were in October. Consumers and viewers have decades of muscle memory about when certain events are supposed to take place. The Super Bowl is in early February; the Masters are in the spring; the World Series is in October. When events — which is all these things are; just live events around which we may all gather — are disrupted and occur at a different time than we are used to, people lose track of them. The whole rhythm of the calendar was off. The NBA Finals are now? Really? People just missed the whole thing.

I think this, as much as anything else, is the reason Oscar ratings were so low: People just aren’t used to watching the Oscars in late April. The Academy will surely go through some dramatic changes to the ceremony in the coming months, and it will help when more movie theaters reopen, but, if we’ve learned anything from sports, this is the fundamental issue: Viewing habits are sorta set in stone, and when you deviate from those habits, even if it’s not your fault, you do so at your own peril. (For what it’s worth, now that the Major League Baseball season has started on time, its ratings are breaking records.) Next year’s ceremonies will be back at the Dolby Theatre, but more important, they’ll be back in late February, on February 27, 2022. If the ratings shoot back up from this terrible year, I suspect that will be the primary reason why. Though all told: Slowing down the In Memorium montage wouldn’t hurt either.

Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper in May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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