When the Oscars air tonight, they’ll be simultaneously streamed over the Internet for the first time in their history. The show’s ratings had been been on jagged decline, according to Nielsen, peaking with more than 55 million viewers in 1998, the year Titanic was chosen as best picture and hitting an all-time low in 2008 with 32 million viewers.
Last year’s show reversed some of that decline with Internet-friendly moments of lowbrow nonsense, it was a signal to the world that the old forum for self-congratulation might actually have some relevance left in its sequined tedium. Attempting to build on the momentum, ABC will make it possible for people to stream the show live from its newly launched WatchABC site and app, which at the moment requires a cable subscription to use in full.
The Academy Awards began in 1929 as an exclusive dinner event for a few hundred attendees, but by the time it was first broadcast on television in 1953 it had become a portentous advertisement for the film industry. At that point the industry had been in a state of prolonged decline, with national theater attendance dropping from 80 million in 1940 to 60 million in 1950. The response was to create a spectacle of opinion and fashion, covering up for the inability of movies to be interesting on their own with a revelry in how glamorous and unattainable the people in the industry still were.
The ultimate point of streaming live cultural events is to manufacture importance, ensuring all causes and factions must treat corporate film as an undismissible part of their cultural progress.
Movie ticket sales have been roughly the the same for the last decade, hovering between 1.2 and 1.4 billion annually, but revenue made by studios has gone up significantly, more than doubling between 1995 and 2012. The increase can be attributed to a number of things, including increased ticket prices, experiments with 3D, DVD sales, and the importance of international markets have helped squeeze extra money out of an otherwise old and inessential consumer industry.
This year, the replacement of sex goon humorist Seth MacFarlane with Ellen Degeneres adds to the sense of important symbolic meaning to the ceremony, acknowledging some obligation to temper the tone of the proceedings out of respect for its assumed power. Woody Allen’s nomination for best screenplay amid renewed accusations of child molestation add a double charge of potential energy to the ceremony, turning the show into a potential space for social progress that shouldn’t be ignored by anyone with a responsible interest in culture. The final piece in this puzzle is the communal instantaneity of the stream, which channels the assembly of Twitter posters into a central space, and makes the disparate complaints and jabs of anger or exultation seem coherent for a few hours.
I’ve known several voting Academy members throughout the years—mostly older white men, with a discouragingly common habit of wearing suede loafers without socks—and none of them have been especially thoughtful in their opinions on movies nor the role of art in culture. Academy members are not advocates for film, but the most successful workers in an industry that happens to manufacture films. Their tastes reflect the necessity of appearing relevant. Oscar ratings reaffirm the upper class foundations of this dull taste with almost 50 percent more viewers coming from homes that make over $100,000 a year than those who make less than that.
This kind of self-flattery is objectively pathetic, but framed by millions of commenters arguing over the fractal minutiae of the ceremony, from the politics of gendered body images to the ethics of celebrating alleged child molesters, it begins to justify the attention that is suddenly coming to it from all sides. The ultimate point of streaming live cultural events is to manufacture importance, ensuring all causes and factions must treat corporate film as an undismissible part of their cultural progress.
After becoming overfamiliar with this pantomime of importance in the years of one-way transmission, opening up a live channel for instant access and instant feedback is the one variation left to keep the ceremony relevant. After exhausting ourselves with the burden of instantaneous opinions about other people’s terrible taste and manner of dress, we will have further flattered the structures that elevate people into categories of presumptive power when, at every major public showing, they demonstrate how little they have to actually share with the world, and how much they still want to take from it.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.