Oscar: Award and the Mass Media

Sidney Kent, then Fox’s President, was the one to propose the use of radio “to sell our pictures,” an idea that was immediately and wholeheartedly embraced by the studios. Consequently, the third annual banquet, on April 3, 1931, was broadcast on radio over the KNX Station. However, for the next fifteen years, only a portion of the show was broadcast. The entire ceremonies were broadcast for the first time on March 15, 1945, over the ABC Network and the Armed Forces Radio Service. This signaled the beginning of what members would describe as the Oscars getting out of control.

Funding for the ceremonies initially came from the studios, which had vested interests in supporting the awards. The banquets in the 1930s were a modest affair that kept the annual deficit low. For example, the combined cost for Duke Ellington’s band and the statuettes amounted to slightly over $1,000.

In 1949, however, some of the major companies refused to underwrite the costs, even though the amount of money needed, about twenty thousand dollars, were minuscule. The decision to discontinue the support was conveyed to the Academy in December 1948, before the announcement of that year’s nominations, which favored British movies, Hamlet and The Red Shoes, over American ones.

Jean Hersholt, the Academy’s president, explained that the moguls didn’t want “Academy standards foisted upon them,” and that they favor the making of “commercial pictures unhampered by consideration of artistic excellence.” And while Hersholt saw in the studios’ decision “the highest praise for our organization,” he was upset that MGM, Paramount, Fox, and Warner each gave 12,500 dollars, whereas Universal, Columbia, and Republic didn’t support the event at all.

In their statement, the studios claimed their step was not based on commercial reasons, stressing that “the companies as companies were never members of the Academy,” which was created as an organization to include only the most accomplished individual artists. Though few believed, they declared they were “heartily in accord with the principle of individuals democratically selecting the best in artistic achievement.” It was “in the interest of this principle,” that they decided, “to remove any suspicion of company influence.”

However, Hamlet’s win of the 1948 Best Picture, and the multiple awards showered on The Red Shoes made the situation worse. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times: “Prides had been wounded by the bombshell bestowal of the Academy upon Hamlet, making the timing of the studios’ expose sound like very sour grapes.” The moguls were upset that the Academy favored British art films over what they considered superb American movies. In 1948, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was nominated in four categories; Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda in twelve; and Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit, which was predicted to win Best Picture, received only one minor award (sound recording) out of six nominations.

The studios denied any link between their decision and the prominence of British films. But the British winners, by contrast, were bewildered, to say the least. “I can’t believe American companies would do such a thing,” said director Emeric Pressburger (who collaborated on films with Michael Powell), and producer Alexander Korda noted, “I’m sure Americans are too generous for any illfeeling to arise.”
But the studios’ withdrawal of support, and the separation of the Oscar from the major companies, was seen by many as a positive move that would make the members freer to vote. In the past, the studios put pressures on their employees to vote for their own pictures and personnel.

Emmet Lavery expressed that feeling in the Saturday Review: “So we come now, in the twentyfirst year of the Academy’s existence, to the parting of the ways between the major Hollywood studios and the Academy as co’sponsors of the annual awards program. And a happy parting it is. The only cause for wonderment is that it did not happen sooner, preferably at the very beginning of the Academy’s existence. This does not mean the end of the Academy. On the contrary, it means an expansion and development on a completely independent level. There can now be little question that the annual awards are the free choice of the 1800 members. This is the moment, and a very good moment, when Oscar comes into his own. At the ripe old age of 21, Oscar has shown that he is free to vote as he chooses.”

For three years, from 1949 to 1951, radio commercials, increased annual dues, and a fund drive barely managed to finance the Oscar ceremonies. In 1952, a turning point occurred: television, Hollywood’s long’time enemy, came to the rescue in a totally unexpected move. In the past, the studios either prohibited or restricted the appearances of their stars on television, so intense was the animosity between the media. But the new cooperation was mutually beneficial: television needed stars, as it had not yet developed its own celebs, and the Academy was desperate for funds to cover the show’s escalating costs.

RCA Victor sponsored the 1952 awards ceremony and NBC televised it. The date, March 19, 1953 (check) was appropriate: Oscar was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. A new era had begun.

Simultaneous ceremonies took place in New York and Los Angeles from 1953 to 1956, with the viewers switched back and forth, depending on the winners’ location, a practice that was discontinued in 1957. The ceremonies were televised in black and white, but in 1967 the show was telecast in color, which contributed to its popularity. American households that could not afford to buy a TV set were not dropped. Simultaneous broadcasts on radio and TV prevailed as late as 1969, when the Academy realized that few people listened to the ceremonies on radio any more. By then, television had long become established as the dominant medium of entertainment in America.

The show’s public grew rapidly: In 1948, an unprecedented audience of fifty million listened to the proceedings, when ABC beamed the event to all its national affiliates and the Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast to American soldiers overseas. A decade later, in 1959, the audiences doubled: eighty million Americans watched the show on television or listened to it on the radio, and another hundred million people were reached overseas, also via radio.

The dramatic increase in audiences had a direct impact on the amount of money paid to the Academy by the Networks. In 1952, the rights were purchased for a hundred thousand dollars, and in 1964, they jumped to a million. No one could have predicted that in a few decades, the Oscar telecast would become the jewel in the Academy’s crown.