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On TV, the Oscars are more gray than gold

Blockbuster films, not the host, may be the key to attracting a younger TV audience.

February 23, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik and John Horn, Los Angeles Times

Sunday's Academy Awards will feature many of Hollywood's shiniest stars, including Barbra Streisand, the cast of "The Avengers" and comic Seth MacFarlane. They'll be celebrating a slate of nine best picture nominees that includes six $100-million blockbusters.

But the celebrities must do more than hand out awards or sing and dance: The Academy of Motion

Picture Arts and Sciences, and longtime broadcaster ABC, need their talent to inject new life into a show whose audience has been declining steadily and aging rapidly.

Oscars 2013: Nominee list | Live ballot | Trivia | Timeline

Once considered an unstoppable phenomenon, the so-called Super Bowl of entertainment has lost momentum. The awards bash drew an average of 46 million viewers in the 1990s, according to Nielsen. Though it's still the top non-sports TV event, the telecast has attracted 40 million viewers only once in the last five years, in 2010.

What's more, the median age of the audience has risen from barely 39 two decades ago to nearly 53 last year. That number is worrisome not only to advertisers but also threatens the ceremony's long-term viability as a must-see TV event.

To expand an audience that is becoming smaller and grayer, the veteran Hollywood producers in charge of this year's broadcast, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, are attempting what might be called the something-for-everyone Oscars. This year's show will feature songs from Streisand and Adele, a sketch based on the movie "Ted" (which MacFarlane directed and wrote), a movie-musical medley and a James Bond tribute.

It's the first time at the helm for the duo (who have been behind stage-to-screen films such as "Chicago"), but there's little historical evidence that many of the weapons at their disposal — picking a young host, cooking up a bevy of celebrity-studded special presentations, adding song-and-dance numbers — have a tangible effect on viewership.

Academy President Hawk Koch has said that he wants the broadcast to be "an entertaining show that gives out awards" rather than an awards show with entertainment.

In 2011, producers experimented with young hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway; the broadcast was widely panned. Last year, the Oscars got back to the tried-and-true with Billy Crystal, then 63, who stepped in after Eddie Murphy dropped out.

MacFarlane, 39, represents a different kind of bet. For the entertainer who created the ribald animated Fox hit "Family Guy," the challenge is to lure in younger viewers while not turning off the more genteel, traditional Oscar audience.

Oscars 2013: Nominee list | Live ballot | Trivia | Snubs | Reactions | Timeline

"Last year was righting the ship after the James Franco experiment the year before," said Dave Boone, an Emmy-winning writer who's worked on eight previous Oscar telecasts, including the 2012 show with Crystal. "This year, producers believe it's time to try something different."

Boone said the producers must strike a delicate balance showcasing MacFarlane. "You don't want to change who he is, but you want to play to the part that's most accessible," Boone said. "Because once you lose the room, it's very hard to get it back."

MacFarlane is trying to manage expectations. In a televised interview this week, he said that he's going in at "minus 10," asserting that his Oscars will be "most astonishingly, dazzlingly mediocre."

Last year, total viewership for the Oscars was 39.3 million, a nearly 4% uptick from 2011 but still way below those 1990s numbers. (The record, 57 million, was set in 1998, when "Titanic" swept the ceremony.)

Last year's median audience age of 52.8 was a jump of 2.2 years from 2011, the biggest such increase in a decade.

Play-at-home ballot: Have you made your picks yet?

Conscious of the slide, ABC has been in an all-out promotional blitz. In its popular prime-time comedy block on Wednesday, writers embedded Oscar plotlines in all of its shows, including "Modern Family" and "The Middle." On "The Middle," Patricia Heaton's suburban mom  eagerly encouraged her family to sit down on the couch and watch the Oscars after earlier proclaiming it the "Super Bowl of Hollywood."

Despite the ratings challenges, ABC has raised its price for a 30-second spot this year to about $1.7 million, up from $1.61 million last year, with total revenue expected to reach about $85 million. Last year's Oscar revenue was about $82 million, a high for the network.

Some pundits have looked to the box-office success of this year's best picture nominees as a potential ratings savior: Six of the nine nominees grossed at least $100 million, the first time so many have crossed that mark. The median box office of the nine contenders is $109 million — the highest since the best picture field expanded beyond five nominees beginning with the 2010 show.

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