Disney-Owned ABC Pushed For Those New Academy Award Changes, Marking A Battle For The Oscars' Soul

Yesterday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced some new Oscar changes are on the way, including the creation of an entirely new category dedicated to celebrating "outstanding achievement in popular film." The Academy has offered a brief clarification about that category, which you can read below – along with details about how ABC were the ones who had these changes instituted, and why that's possibly a bad look for The Walt Disney Company.

An Attempt At Clarification

We theorized and speculated about the new "popular film" category yesterday, and the Academy released a statement trying to clear the air a little:

"While the details for a popular film category are still being finalized, a single film is eligible for an Oscar in both categories — Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film and the Academy Award for Best Picture. The new category will be introduced this coming year, at the 91st Oscars. In creating this award, the Board of Governors supports broad-based consideration of excellence in all films."

That statement does nothing to convince me that the popular category still won't be viewed as a lesser prize by everyone involved. This entire situation reeks of the board being scared that they'd become even more irrelevant if Black Panther doesn't get a Best Picture nomination, and from an optics standpoint, it feels as if they're creating this category specifically for that movie.

ABC's Involvement

The most recent Oscar ceremony was the least-watched in history, pulling in only 26.6 million viewers (according to Nielsen's live-plus-same day numbers). Executives at ABC, the network that will broadcast the Oscars until at least 2028, took notice of those godawful ratings and quickly organized a meeting with Academy leadership. According to Variety, those executives were the ones who made the strong push for the new Oscar changes. From the report:

...the TV people walked through the lousy ratings at a granular level, identifying precise moments during the show that prompted viewers to stop watching. They made several recommendations about the ways that the telecast's length could be reigned in, and proposed a 'best blockbuster' category that would reward films that had been seen by larger audiences.

Look, not all of these new decisions are bad. Moving the ceremony to early February so audiences won't get bogged down in a seemingly never-ending award season is a great move. Trying to force a three-hour run time is smart. But there's something cringe-worthy about a Disney-owned network pushing hard for a category that would almost certainly benefit movies produced by Disney. (To be clear, the company's Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars films are some of the most popular films in Hollywood and many of them are genuinely excellent.)

One more telling quote from Variety's report gives some insight into how ABC is thinking about the negative reaction to the new category:

Network insiders were also unmoved Wednesday by evident social-media backlash to the announcement, particularly to the addition of the popular film category, noting that changes to longstanding institutions such as the Oscars often yield complaints, and predicting that audiences would ultimately embrace the new format.

The Battle for the Soul of the Oscars

At the risk of stating the obvious, every one of these changes is being put in place to draw more viewers to the Academy Awards. Here's what it comes down to: the Academy is sacrificing its reputation as a Hollywood institution in the hopes of achieving higher ratings.

It's almost as if they haven't been paying attention to the way that audiences have approached television over the past few years. Cord-cutting is at an all-time high, and the days of everyone in the country sitting down and watching the same thing are long gone. Chasing ratings is a losing game, but they think adding a new category to ensure a popular movie gets nominated is going to get tons more people to tune in? Audiences just watch clips online of big moments – a particularly impassioned speech, or something like the Moonlight/La La Land debacle a few years ago. This ploy for higher ratings seems misguided at best.

On top of all of that, there's already an entirely separate ceremony devoted to handing out technical awards, and now the board is going to condense the not-as-sexy categories that remain into a quick montage later in the show, robbing those artists of their full moment in the spotlight. "We are definitely upset," one member of the sound branch told The Hollywood Reporter. That group is scared that the sound categories are going to fall victim to this new rule, which is a distinct possibility. "Turning the show into a popular variety show is a mistake. Most of us are played off pretty quickly; it's all the bloated stuff in between. They could do many things to streamline the show."