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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

The Academy Awards ceremony will be held this Sunday—will you be watching?

You don’t have to be an industry insider to know that ratings for the Academy Awards telecast are much lower now compared with past decades.

Before the widespread availability of cable television in the early 1980s, typically two-thirds of people watching TV tuned in. During the 1980s through the mid-1990s, close to half of all television sets were tuned to the show. Despite an uptick during the past couple years, the percentage has hovered under one quarter of viewers during the 2000s.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been trying boost ratings. Last year, the Academy reverted to a pre-WWII tactic of selecting ten best picture nominees in hopes of creating  more interest in the show.

There are a number of likely reasons for the ratings decline. In our entertainment-saturated society, we have a lot competing for our attention.

But the shifting nature of celebrity itself has likely changed the public’s interest in a decidedly twentieth century television show, one that resembles a mid-century variety show long gone from regular prime time schedules.

In the not-too-distant past, watching the Oscars offered us one of the few opportunities to watch famous people “just being themselves,” not playing a role in a movie. We could try and get a sense of who they really were in the candid shots of them sitting in the audience and from their acceptance speeches.

With the advent of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and TMZ, we get to see celebrities behind the scenes all the time. In fact, part of the experience of consuming celebrity today involves learning more about their backstage behavior than their onstage performances. The old appeal of watching our favorite movie stars on television seems quaint today.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, during this year’s broadcast fans can pay to view additional live video feeds from backstage, the lobby bar, and the Governors Ball. I’m not sure people will pay for this kind of access, since we’ve become accustomed to getting tweets and behind-the-scenes videos for free.

Reality stars may not have the talent of the Oscar nominees, but they have helped set the expectation of total access. Yes, occasionally an outrageous outfit or speech might shock viewers, but we are used to that by now.

Perhaps the best way to regain viewers for the telecast is to apply twenty-first century celebrity logic to a twentieth century tradition. But this may be an impossible contradiction.

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