LOS ANGELES // The producers responsible for tomorrow night's Academy Awards ceremony are not particularly worried whether the Oscar for Best Picture goes to Slumdog Millionaire, the runaway favourite, or an underdog candidate like Milk or Frost/Nixon. Their focus, rather, is on getting people to turn on their television sets and actually watch the ceremony. It used to be said that the Oscars reached a worldwide audience of one billion people, but the stark reality is that the viewership has been plummeting over the last decade. Last year's domestic audience in the United States - around 32 million - was the smallest ever recorded.
Every year, the complaints are very similar. The ceremony is too long. Nobody has seen the nominated movies. There are way too many awards ceremonies already and they are all boring. So, this year, the producers are determined to try something different. Quite what that different thing will turn out to be is a matter of hot speculation but very little hard fact, as the producers are holding their cards very close to their chests.
The rumours, though, span everything from an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza, to a structured play, in which the Oscar accolades form part of the plot. Here is what we know for sure. The tradition of a comedian as master of ceremonies is out, as, presumably, is the format of beginning with a topically amusing monologue. Last year's host, the television satirist Jon Stewart, has been replaced by Hugh Jackman, the Australian actor.
We also know that the producers of this year's show, Laurence Mark and Bill Condon, have a long history of fascination with song and dance. Together, they were responsible for the 2006 movie Dreamgirls, a musical inspired by the story of the soul record label Motown. Beyond that, it is anybody's guess. "You are going to be surprised as a viewer in what you're going to see," Sid Ganis, the man overseeing the event, told the new Hollywood news website The Wrap. "Absolutely surprised."
We have, admittedly, heard much the same in years past when producers, faced with exactly the same dilemma of falling audience interest, have promised to put a fresh spin on a tired formula and, above all, succeed in bringing the monstrously long occasion at under three hours. Usually, they have delivered more of the same, at equal or greater length. To be fair, the producers are battling against a trend that is bigger than any of them. The economy is in crisis. Network television is in crisis, because of the panoply of new distractions, from cable to video games to the internet. Hollywood itself is in crisis, having weathered one strike by writers in the past year and now facing a round of studio job losses and belt-tightening across the board. One of the themes of this year's Oscars, in fact, is something industry insiders are calling "luxury shame" - the fear of seeming too ostentatious at a time of economic hardship for many Americans. Some are making token efforts to tone things down a little - Vanity Fair is restricting the guest list to its tentpole post-ceremony party and serving nothing fancier than chicken pot pie in the decidedly low-key Sunset Tower hotel.
The gloomy economic picture is reflected in the cold hard cash of the advertising business. Last year, ABC, the network with the rights to the Oscars telecast, charged an average US$1.8 million (Dh6.6m) for a 30-second spot. This year, it has dropped its prices to between $1.4m and $1.7m. Two key advertisers from years past, the French perfume company L'Oréal and the troubled automaker General Motors, have dropped out altogether.
One media group which tracks advertisement buying, TNS Media Intelligence, estimates a total haul for the telecast of $68m, 16 per cent down from last year's $81m. In the past, the network prided itself on banning advertisements for actual films - this was a night for celebration and fair competition, not crude marketing pushes. But this year, in another sign of the times, Hollywood studios will for the first time be allowed to hawk their products during commercial breaks.
It would be wrong, however, to think that the network's woes meant a complete lack of interest in the glamour parade down the red carpet. It is just that the platform for watching the ceremony is moving from television to the internet. According to a report by the internet portal Yahoo, the online audience for all the juiciest parts of awards ceremonies - the wittiest speeches, the most outrageous hairdos, the fashion parade and more - is growing fast and already reaching into the millions.
Mickey Rourke's (The Wrestler) funny, degenerate, profanity-laden acceptance speech at the Bafta awards in London last month became a huge hit on YouTube and other internet video sites - a good reason to think he may pip his closest competition, Sean Penn (Milk), for Best Actor. * The National