LOS ANGELES – They’ve tried edgy and tinkered with experimental. But the producers of the 86th Academy Awards telecast believe that what America really wants is tradition.
This year’s Oscar show Sunday brought back 2007 host Ellen DeGeneres, a likable, benign daytime television presence. Backstage, Broadway-oriented veterans Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are back producing for a second consecutive year.
Not present? Seth MacFarlane, the “Family Guy” creator who polarized audiences last year, even though he did manage a ratings jump. Ditto for the podium kibitzing of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have brought an air of controlled raucousness to the last two Golden Globes ceremonies.
“It’s the kinder, gentler Oscars,” said Dave Boone, an Emmy-winning writer who has worked on more than a half-dozen Oscar telecasts. “It would be a surprise and a mistake if Ellen did what Seth did or what Tina and Amy did. That’s not what this year’s Oscars are about.”
By offering a kind of television comfort food, the Oscars are hoping to consolidate their base, particularly women. Those viewers are more drawn to Ellen – they make up the core of her 25 million-strong Twitter following – and less disposed to the tomfoolery that MacFarlane brought to last year’s show, when bits like “We Saw Your Boobs” struck some as crude. The Oscars audience is typically more than 60 percent female.
But in its return to tradition, the telecast could be missing an opportunity to draw younger audiences. Last year, MacFarlane reversed a median viewer age that had risen steadily from 42 in 1993 to nearly 53 in 2012. His presence pushed the age down to 51.4, but DeGeneres could well pull it back up. If the median tops 2012’s 52.8, it would be the oldest Academy Awards audience since they began keeping records.
The stakes are high for the Oscars and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that stages them. Outside of postseason football games, the telecast is the most-viewed program of the year, with advertisers this time around paying an average of $1.8 million for a 30-second spot, up 9 percent from last year.
Experts say that the academy is willing to roll the dice on DeGeneres because the talk-show host presents a safe, reassuring image within Hollywood – vital to attracting A-list presenters. Her ability to move between singing, dancing and joking provides a potent combination for audiences.
“Ellen can do the variety show in a way few people today can,” said Tom Nunan, the veteran film producer and TV executive who teaches at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “Producers might be on to something with someone like that – an incredibly durable presence who can fill those shoes for years to come, versus a name du jour who’s learning on the job.”
Or as academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs told the Los Angeles Times last week, “We love the idea of continuity.”
The Oscars have long had a traditional undercurrent, exemplified by recurring host Billy Crystal, who last presided in 2012. But the decision to follow that mind-set so closely is a notable switch not just from MacFarlane last year but the 2011 Oscars, which saw James Franco’s and Anne Hathaway’s mixed hosting turn, and the 2009 ceremony, which shook up how awards were presented and given out.
Adding to the classic feel of this year’s show, was a scheduled reunion of Judy Garland’s three children to mark the 75th anniversary of that most iconic of Hollywood creations, “The Wizard of Oz.”
Still, for all the appeal of familiarity, pop culture’s interest in the next shiny face can be inhospitable to repeat hosts. Jon Stewart drew the smallest number of viewers in several decades during his sophomore stint in 2008, and Whoopi Goldberg’s fourth and final turn, in 2002, hit a then-13-year low.
Conversely, rookie MacFarlane landed the second-highest rating in eight years, with 40.4 million total viewers, up 12 percent from the previous year. And one of the most popular shows in history was hosted by a panned first-timer – David Letterman, who in 1995 drew nearly 49 million viewers. Outside of 1998’s record-setting year of “Titanic,” it stands as the most watched Oscars since the early 1980s, as Letterman’s gaffes became water-cooler moments.
Social media can enhance that must-see effect for contemporary awards shows, as the Golden Globes has found with Fey and Poehler bits, whose popularity on Twitter and YouTube drove a 10-year high in total viewers in January.
The “Titanic,” audience, meanwhile, shows how a popular movie can juice the ratings. When the best picture nominees are also commercial successes, more people tend to watch the telecast.