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Despite declining viewers, Hollywood’s Oscars ceremony still has impact

Oscar nominations were announced Tuesday morning. The awards show is scheduled for Feb. 24.

Sunday is the 94th annual Academy Awards, an annual gala celebrating the artistic and technical merit of the film industry.

There was a time when the Oscars were the second most watched show on television, second only to the Super Bowl. That's an apt comparison, says Montana State University film professor Dennis Aig.

“The Oscars were like a Super Bowl of film-going," he said. "You would see your favorite film or favorite filmmakers nominated and you would want to see what happened."

Aig, head of the film and photography department at MSU and a filmmaker himself, says when he asked his students about this year’s Oscar nominations, their reaction was less than enthused.

“It was very lukewarm," he said. "About half the students were even aware the nominations had come out, and I’d say three-quarters of them weren’t particularly excited.”

The Oscars may suffer from viewers’ awards fatigue. Sunday’s show is the last telecast of a very long award season that includes the Critics Choice, Screen Actor Guild and many others.

Thanks in part to COVID-19 and past shows without a host, Aig says the broadcast has lost its entertainment value. He says the broadcasts that we remember — that entertained — had strong hosts with sketches, salutes and tributes.

"I think it takes a certain amount of showmanship to be reintroduced to the Oscars so everybody remembers that it is an awards ceremony but it’s also a program," Aig said.

Despite award burnout and declining network viewership — last year’s ceremony drew a new TV audience low, down by half from the previous year — the Oscars still play a role in promoting movies.

Films that garner Academy consideration are a draw at the Art House Cinema in Billings, says creative director Brian Oestreich. Art House and the affiliated Babcock Theater showed Oscar-nominated Dune and for the last several years have aired Oscar-nominated animated, live action and documentaries, like When We Were Bullies.

Oestreich says an Oscar nomination “scratches an itch” for people who want some type of guidance in the vast world of cinema.

“If we bring in an international film that has that Oscar nomination, that little star next to it, it definitely boosts our attendance," he said. "People use that nomination as a metric that this is a film I should invest some time into."

The awards broadcast on Sunday will have hosts again (three of them), an in-person audience and some craft awards presented before the live broadcast in hopes of shortening the program.

Oestreich says if viewership continues to decline the Oscars will still hold prestige even if people continue to roll their eyes at the show.

“Even the most jaded person, still, if they really like Power of the Dog they are excited that it got some nominations. It feels like a win on them even if they don’t really put a whole lot of stock in what the Academy says,” Oestreich said.

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.