Editor in Chief
The year 1929 in American history is notorious for the Wall Street Crash that effectively ended the Roaring Twenties and ushered in the Great Depression. Ironically enough, it was also the same year that marked the beginning of a glamorous new era. In 1929, the first Academy Awards were held in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Award shows have come a long way since 1929. On March 2, the 86th Academy Awards will be held at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
But behind the glamor of the Academy Awards, and other award shows, comes the cold hard truth—planned spontaneity and advertising dollars are its fuel, rather than the entertainment of old. With the evolution of society came the new digital age and the wonders of editing and cutting-edge production. And with the invention of television came the booming business of advertisement. What people wanted from award shows before this age were the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaires — now, they want something different.
“The thing that you have to remember about American television is that television production is done for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to fill the spot between commercials,” Ted Kaye, former vice president of film and tape production for Disney, said. Kaye currently serves as Foundation president at Las Positas College. “If people want to have an award show that is without shock value or that’s cutting edge, they can do that. They can have tuxedoes and all sorts of stuff, and they will draw nothing in terms of viewers.”
Beneath the glitz and the glamor of Hollywood and award shows, the baseline is ratings and advertisement. In order to get those ratings to fuel the advertisement, award shows like the Academy Awards must be carefully calculated and produced to a tee. People no longer want to see graceful Ginger Rogers accept her award. They want to see the spontaneity and the moments that were seemingly unplanned.
“(My favorite parts are) the shocking moments when something explicit happens or something that’s not supposed to happen happens,” LPC student Angelika Quiambao said.
But even when it comes to spontaneity, most of the times, it is produced.
“It’s spontaneous in terms of the speeches, but it’s not spontaneous in terms of the production. All the stuff you see is scripted,” Kaye said.
Kaye, in fact, knows firsthand what goes on behind the curtain. Before coming to Las Positas College to fill in the role of Foundation president, he worked for Disney for 15 years in the network side of television. While describing it as “a wonderful time,” he also revealed the not-so-glamorous aspect of production.
“I can tell you from experience, going to an award show is the most labor intensive, non-dramatic thing you’ve ever seen,” Kaye said. “It’s called the magic of television. You make production.”
But in order to get the ratings, the producers cannot show the millions of audience members around the globe the labor that goes into making the production, so it is staged. When people start walking down the red carpet, the cameras only show the hottest stars. When someone has to get up to go to the restroom during a show, a seat-filler is ushered in to fill the space.
Even play-off music is carefully constructed. The notorious Academy Award music that cuts off a rambling celebrity’s speech is not so much for time as it is for production purposes, though time does play a factor.
“The play off — when the music starts playing, and they play you off — that’s the dangerous part. That’s unscripted, and we (in the audience), don’t want to hear you thanking people that we don’t know what they are or what they do,” Kaye said. “Who cares? Let’s get on with the entertainment.”
In the end, it is all about what the targeted audience wants and what will fuel the business of advertisement.
“Our generation is crazy. It’s not like people already know what to expect. Now we expect the unexpected,” Quiambao said.
Just because everything is produced does not mean that spontaneous moments do not happen, however. Melissa Leo’s F-bomb during her Oscar acceptance speech in 2011, Michael Moore’s digs on President George Bush in 2003 and Robert Opel’s streak across the stage during the 1974 Oscars are just a few memorably spontaneous moments.
But, like everything else, these spontaneous moments help to increase ratings and give the targeted audience what they are looking for. Because of this, the producers play a part in planning the spontaneity.
“(What people wanted to see) might have started changing when Janet Jackson had the wardrobe malfunction. Whether or not that was planned is irrelevant,” Kaye said. “It doesn’t happen spontaneously unless you allow it and plan for it. Planned spontaneity. I guess what I’m saying is that things are much more scripted, but people get exactly what they are looking for.”
What are people looking for now? It could be Miley Cyrus twerking on stage, or it could be Leonardo DiCaprio losing yet another Oscar. But the times have changed. The business of advertisement is the baseline of a show that was once the defining elegance of a new age. And the thing about that age?
“If you went back and looked at some of the tapes of the old award shows, they’re going to have a different feel to them. They’re going to bore you to death,” Kaye said.