Oscar: Awards Show Reflects Society and Pop Culture

The Oscar telecast is a peculiar event: part variety show, part news event, part horse race, part fashion display–and all promotion.

As Premiere magazine wrote: “Like everything else in Hollywood, the Oscar show is a big production surrounded by gushes of hype and hoopla, climaxing with a showbiz extravaganza, and ending with more bucks spent at the box‑office.”

One of the qualities of the Oscar show is that each event reflects its era in a distinctive way. “They reflect America,” said Gilbert Cates, long-time producer of the show. “When you look at the Oscar show from 1960, you learn something about American society in 1960.”  Each Oscar show reflects the fashion, the mores, the humor, the politics–in short the zeitgeist.

Every year, the Academy produces the most complex live awards show on television.  Amazingly, despite persistent fears, the producers have never really screwed up.  Drawing on a solid budget of $17 million (for the 2002 show), the telecast employs the top talents in the industry, from the best set designers to the “hottest” presenters to the performers.

The challenge to produce a show that combines the best of film and the best of television entertainment is not an easy one.  The producers feel that the Oscar spectacle should be much more than a tribute to film, that it should also be a thrilling television show in its own right since the ceremonies are watched by people who are not movie fans.

The Oscar Show is ultimately a far more important global media event than the Oscar Awards and the honored artists.     Through the spectacle-show, as John O’Connor observed in the New York Times, “The viewer gets not only the event, but also the overall television context.”  One can add to this observation that the viewer gets not only the television context but also the overall cultural context, both onstage and offstage, beginning with red-carpet arrivals (whose coverage is getting longer and longer), and through the comments of the hosts and the winners’ speeches.

Emcee Johnny Carson described the 1979 Oscar show as “two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over four hours.”  This was an understatement, compared to the dullness of other shows.

The New York Times‘s Vincent Canby compared the 1983 show “taking an extremely slow Seventh Avenue Local to heaven in a long and over‑crowded ride, and the arrival–by which time one is  exhausted–is always a bit of an anticlimax.”  For Canby, the show’s atmosphere is defined by “the solemnity of the annual Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm with the cheerful bad taste of the grand opening of a shopping center in Los Angeles.”

Canby didn’t realize in 1983 that in two decades the Oscar show would take place in a shopping mall!