Following weeks of speculation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has finally confirmed that this year’s Oscars ceremony will not have a host. Karey Burke, entertainment chief at ABC, the network that will carry the show, addressed this development Tuesday morning during an event for the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour.
“The main goal, which I was told was what the academy promised ABC last year, after a very lengthy telecast, was to keep the show to three hours,” Burke said. “So the producers, I think, wisely decided to not have a host and to go back to having the presenters and the movies be the stars, and that will be the best way that we kind of keep the show at a brisk three hours.”
The academy announced its intentions to limit the telecast to three hours in August, a few months before Burke was hired. That change seemed to be a reaction to a continuing decline in viewership — the number watching last year’s nearly four-hour telecast dropped 19 percent from the prior year and represented an all-time low of 26.5 million viewers. (Nonetheless, the ceremony’s director went on to win an Emmy in September.) The announcement also included a controversial new category recognizing achievement in “popular film,” which the academy delayed after a significant amount of backlash.
This year’s Oscars ceremony seems to have been shaped by public fury more than any other in recent history. Soon after comedian Kevin Hart was named host in early December, several of his old homophobic tweets and jokes resurfaced, sparking widespread criticism. He issued an apology and eventually backed out, went on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show and said he would reconsider the gig after she vouched for him, but eventually backed out again.
An already undesirable job became even more so.
“There was a messiness behind the Kevin Hart situation,” Burke said Tuesday. “After that it was pretty clear that we were going to stay the course. There was an idea that we were going to just have presenters host the Oscars, and we all got on board with that idea pretty quickly.”
As uncertainty among the public lingered, the academy fiddled more with the ceremony’s structure in an effort to keep the three-hour promise. Rumors spread that best cinematography would be one of multiple technical categories to be awarded during commercial breaks, deepening fears that had been around since August. Variety reported in late January that only two of the five Oscar-nominated songs — probably Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars” from “Black Panther,” plus Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” — would be performed live and that the other three would be acknowledged only when the nominees were named.
This time, the outrage even reached “Mary Poppins Returns” star Lin-Manuel Miranda, known for his sunny disposition on Twitter. He quote-tweeted Variety’s report and wrote: “If true, and Poppins’ song won’t be performed, truly disappointing. Hostless AND music-less? To quote Kendrick: Damn.” New York Times Carpetbagger columnist Kyle Buchanan took note of this rare negativity in a piece titled “Are the Oscars Ashamed to Be the Oscars?” The Atlantic on Tuesday published an article accusing the academy of being “prepared to sell its soul” for stronger ratings.
The academy eventually reversed course and tweeted late last week that all five nominated songs would be performed during the telecast — reports otherwise were “premature and only reflective of a proposal,” said insiders quoted by Deadline. The trade outlet added that Lady Gaga or her representatives had made it clear that they wanted all five songs to be performed out of fairness to other nominees and “that she wouldn’t perform if a change wasn’t made.” Each performance will reportedly last just 90 seconds so the telecast doesn’t surpass three hours, further proving the academy’s commitment to the limit.
All that said, getting rid of the host won’t necessarily prevent controversy. The only other time the Oscars ceremony has been hostless throughout its 91-year history was in 1989, when an actress dressed as Snow White and Rob Lowe, her Prince Charming, painfully made their way through a 15-minute opening musical number that left audience members disgusted. “The show itself looked like a gay bar mitzvah,” the actress, Eileen Bowman, recalled to the Hollywood Reporter in 2013.
Burke told television critics Tuesday that this year’s ceremony would still include “an exciting opening.”
Hank Stuever contributed to this report.