The motion picture academy's insistence on decorum in the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl debacle gave last night's telecast of 76th Annual Academy Awards all the unpredictability of a sitcom rerun.
ABC had hoped to attract the much-coveted young male audience to the annual broadcast by promising viewers the unexpected. But from The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King winning a record-tying 11 Oscars to host Billy Crystal opening with a parody song, there was little in the three-hour, 40-minute program that could be called surprising.
To entice young viewers, the program's roster was peppered with such hip performers as Jack Black, Will Ferrell and Will Smith. The Oscars' liveliest moment did come when Black and Ferrell sang a duet about boring acceptance speeches. But as clever as it was, the song was decidedly mainstream, done in the style of a Broadway show tune.
Even the beer commercials - often the raciest spots on television - seemed paeans to middle-American family life. After all, how unexpected could things be with an audio and video delay mechanism in place?
"The Academy Awards have always tended to be a more staid affair than, say, the Grammys, because that's the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science likes it," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Televison at Syracuse University.
"But ABC is at a point this year where it needed some flash - some ratings sizzle - especially in terms of young male viewers. The network is feeling the pressure to reverse a steady ratings decline."
The Oscars telecast has lost 40 percent of its audience over the past five years, dropping from 55.3 millions viewers in 1998 to an all-time low of 33 million last year. (The audience for last year's telecast, which came at the start of the war in Iraq, was down 20 percent from the previous year.)
Glamour returned this year to the pre-telecast show, in contrast to last year's more subdued opening in which stars dressed down in deference to the war. But the show itself began with the old-time, show-biz schtick of Crystal singing parodies in salute to stars Clint Eastwood ("Old Man Eastwood" sung to "Old Man River") and Russell Crowe ("Come Sail With Me" sung to "Come Fly With Me"). Crystal delivers lyrics with a delicious sense of joy, but this formula was old back when the Rat Pack began using it in Las Vegas in the 1960s.
Beyond the presence of some younger stars, little about last night's show was likely to attract young male viewers or to persuade channel surfers to put down the remote control.
A series of film parodies in which special effects were used to superimpose Crystal into scenes from several of the year's biggest films did show him partially nude, but that's not exactly the kind of flesh likely to bring younger viewers to the awards telecast.
The closest thing to female nudity in this show was a reference by Crystal in one of his parody tunes to Jackson's breast-baring during the Super Bowl half-time show.
Crystal introduced comedian Robin Williams "as the reason for the five-second delay," but despite the comic brilliance of the two performers, the moment barely rated a smile. Williams, who presented the award for best animated feature film, alluded to the Jackson debacle by pulling at the chest of his jacket as if trying to bare his left breast. But there was nothing daring about the joke.
The network sold all available commercials at $1.5 million per 30-second spot, though the academy vetted each advertisement. Budweiser beer, known for producing some of television's raunchier ads, featured young men and women in cities around the world chatting as they quaffed beer. Nary a thong, wet T-shirt or sexually suggestive body part was to be seen.
Many of last night's commercials featured young adults in family situations - such as a Diet Pepsi ad that featured a young father glued watching baseball on TV while his wife was giving birth in the next room.
Even political comments - the one area of expression that producer Joe Roth promised not to censor - were subdued. The one standout came when director Errol Morris won an Oscar for his documentary about the Vietnam War, Fog of War.
"Forty years ago, this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam, and millions died," Morris said in his acceptance speech. "I fear we are going down a rabbit hole again."
The statement drew applause, but it was nowhere near as strident as Michael Moore's remarks last year. In his acceptance speech for best documentary, Moore called Bush a "fictitious president."
Crystal responded to Morris' remarks with one of his funniest lines of the evening: "I can't wait for his tax audit. Scary times."
Back to the 1950s
With the exception of Sean Penn (Oscar for best actor), who referred to weapons of mass destruction, this could have been a telecast featuring Bob Hope in the 1950s. That is exactly what last night's telecast felt like when Crystal and several recipients paused to address and thank members of the armed services stationed around the world.
Tim Robbins, who won an Oscar as best supporting actor for his work in Mystic River, used his acceptance speech to urge victims of abuse to speak out. And Renee Zellweger, who won the best supporting actress for Cold Mountain, limited herself to thanking and complimenting others. Hardly the stuff of political controversy.
Annie Lennox and Alison Krause delivered fine musical performances, but both are artists whose work appeals primarily to adults too old to fall into ABC's target audience.
"It's a dilemma - how to attract young male viewers who want to see flesh, according to conventional Hollywood wisdom, without offending the family audience the way CBS did at the Super Bowl," said Shirley Peroutka, professor of popular culture at Goucher College.
"I'm not sure any telecast in this post-Bono, post-Super-Bowl climate was going to manage that trick. Maybe safe and tame was the way to go."
Last night's program, as traditional and predictable as it was, did feature more glamour and class than Oscar telecasts of recent years. It surely will be seen by most viewers as being far superior to CBS' Super Bowl show.
"But you have to wonder," Peroutka said, "how ABC's going to feel about all of that if the ratings come out and they're even worse than last year."
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