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What Happened to the Oscar Host?

As a child of the 90s I have fond memories of the pageantry that is the Oscars. Back then the awards show had a simple feel to it with a Barbara Walters special kicking off the festivities, Tom Hanks appearing on stage at least once and a big opening number recapping the past year in movies before introducing the illustrious host. 

For about a 15-year stretch between 1990-2005, host duties mostly rotated between the trio of Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg, with each bringing their own unique style, one-liners, and performance to the show. And for the most part it worked. The hosts were the central part of the show and brought plenty to the table as they shared the spotlight with the night’s biggest winners.

Furthermore, they added to the awards show by providing uplifting humor, keeping it at pace providing a sometimes-needed break from the hoopla. Overall, they didn’t take anything away from the show. 

However, as the Academy Awards gears up to go on for a third consecutive year without a host, it may be the Oscars that is taking away the role entirely.  

How did we get here? What happened to the job of hosting the Oscars? 

The short answer is that the Oscars wanted to be cool. The long-detailed answer is the Oscars got a little nervous when ratings started to dip a little and they started searching for ways to boost viewership by appealing to a younger audience.  That’s when the Academy started tinkering with the show. 

Board members began analyzing everything from the length of the show, the acceptance speeches, the presentation and the host. 

In 2005 Chris Rock was tabbed to host. The following year the Academy rolled the dice with Jon Stewart. Ellen DeGeneres followed in 2007, with Stewart returning in 2008. Notice a pattern? The Oscars was now featuring comedians and popular TV show hosts to emcee Hollywood’s biggest night. 

But the “skew younger” experiment reached a high and low note in 2011 when Anne Hathaway and James Franco co-hosted. 

It was a dramatic shift for the Academy to go with two co-hosts who were in their late 20s and early 30s and 20 years younger than the average age of most of the recent hosts. There was no hiding it now- the Oscars wanted to appeal to a younger audience. It was a move probably best highlighted by Franco’s line to Hathaway at the beginning of the show when he said she looked “so beautiful and so hip” to which Hathaway responded by saying he looked very appealing to a younger demographic as well.

What the Academy Board didn’t realize is that by trying to shift its target audience they were also alienating their core audience. It also ignored the idea that young people weren’t going to all of a sudden drop everything and tune in. The Academy was sending the young demographic a “You up?” text and hoping they would respond with “Yes, wya?”

Was it painful to read that last sentence? Did it make you cringe reading it as much as it made me cringe writing it? That is a microcosm of what it was like watching the Oscars try to get the attention of the younger demographic.  

The result was a bad awards show in every which way. 

In the short-term, the Academy was spared media coverage of the 2011 debacle thanks to Charlie Sheen’s out of control ‘winning’ revenge media tour that dominated the news cycle the same week. But the long-term impact was just starting. The awards show was at a crossroads, and it kept gambling because it wanted to be cool. The following year Eddie Murphy was chosen to serve as host and although people had high hopes, it never materialized due to producer Brett Ratner being asked to step down following a controversial interview he did with Howard Stern. Murphy followed suit and over time everyone is left wondering what could have been if Murphy had hosted. 

In a clutch move, Crystal returned as host. The following year, Seth MacFarlane hosted and then DeGeneres took on the role in 2014. Neil Patrick Harris hosted in 2015 and then Chris Rock returned for a second time in 2016. However, no one struck a chord with the audience. 

The host’s job is already tough enough as it is. They must perform for two different audiences- those who are at the ceremony and the viewing audience watching at home. Jokes that may not land with the crowd in the theater probably killed with those watching. It’s always tough to judge how a host is doing based on the reaction. In the past 10 years social media has entered the mix too. Twitter was a real-time critic and a popular way to instantly talk about or criticize anything and everything. 

Social media also played a role in derailing Kevin Hart’s chances of becoming host in 2019. Old tweets from Hart resurfaced where he mused about how he would react if he had a gay son. The internet mob also came after him for some of his early stand-up bits on the same subject. Hart decided to step aside as host. The Oscars had come to another fork in the road and this time they chose to go without a host. 

Taking the steps to go without a host was a bold move for the awards show and a break from tradition. But things change. There’s no more Barbara Walters special. Social media has altered the complexion of the red carpet a little now that people have more access to celebrities. The awards show has evolved but it’s still trying to be cooler and for now it seems comfortable without a host. 

The move has people questioning if a host is a necessity for the Oscars. As the world turns the corner on the pandemic now seems like a good time for the Oscars to make a change without it becoming a big deal. The Oscars can avoid any host controversy by not having one. It doesn’t have to worry about making the “safe” choice or taking a risk. It can simply let the nominees and the winners be the stars of the night. It was a bold move to go without a host in 2019. Now as the Oscars embarks on a third year without a host it may become the norm going forward.  

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Written by Andy Mattison

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