The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Oscars: Take a hint from the Grammys

November 21, 2008 |  5:01 pm

132986_ca_0122_oscar_5_als_3  For the past few years, I've made myself something of a pain in the tush to the motion picture academy, arguing that it's time--as in lo-o-o-o-ng overdue--to start revitalizing the Oscars. One of my many suggestions was to take the nominations announcement--which essentially features an academy official and a second-tier celebrity standing at a podium, reading off names at the crack of dawn before a scrum of bleary-eyed publicists and cranky reporters--and turn it into a Big Prime-Time TV Event. After all, it's pretty clear that most of the real suspense involving the Oscars these days involves the nominations, not the actual winners, which have felt somewhat anticlimactic in recent years. So why not stage the nominations at night, when the younger viewers the academy is so desperate to reach might actually watch, or at least be awake?

Well, someone was thinking what I was thinking, though it certainly wasn't the motion picture academy, which is about as open to advice from outsiders as Dick Cheney is to planet-saving suggestions from the Sierra Club. The recording academy (also known as NARAS) has transformed the nominations for the 51st annual Grammy Awards into an hourlong TV special. Airing Dec. 3 on CBS, which also broadcasts the Grammys on Feb. 5, the nominations have become a live concert, with appearances by such top-flight artists as Mariah Carey, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Foo Fighters and blues legend B.B. King. Between performances, co-hosts LL Cool J and Taylor Swift will announce a few of the major Grammy nominations, with the others being distributed to the media immediately after the special ends.   

For NARAS President Neil Portnow, turning the nominations into a concert event was a no-brainer. It's a way to help revitalize the awards themselves--which like all award shows, notably the Oscars, have seen their ratings spiraling downward in recent years. Portnow is also savvy enough to realize that in the reality TV era, viewers are transfixed by any kind of competition.

"We've always tried to find ways to build more attention and interest in Grammy season," he told me. "It became obvious that the nominations were a key to the whole thing. It's the point in the process where everyone, both in the media and in the general public, wants to know--Who's up? Who's down? Who's a winner and who's not? Since the interest is obviously there, why not take advantage of it? Like it or not, competition drives the public's interest in these kind of shows. So if we want to re-energize the awards themselves, why do it in the ballroom of a hotel at some ungodly hour of the morning when you could do it in prime time on TV?"

Portnow went to CBS czar Les Moonves, who loved the idea, figuring it would serve as a great promotion for the Feb. 8 awards show. Portnow didn't have any trouble persuading top artists to participate. "Having an hour of prime-time TV in this day and age is a good thing for everybody," he says. "It comes in the middle of the biggest buying season for the music business, so it's great advertising for a lot of artists who have new albums out right now."

The show will help promote the new Grammy Museum, which also opens next month. The proceeds from concert ticket sales all go to the museum. "I'm not saying it's a magic bullet, but we're eager to try some new things to reach our audience," says Portnow. Geez, can you believe it? At least there's one academy that's willing to embrace new ideas. If the Grammy nomination special gets solid ratings, I predict the motion picture academy will leap into action and have its own nomination special ready to go ... in 2014. As everyone knows all too well, in Hollywood, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. 

Photo of Kathy Bates and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Sid Ganis by Al Seib / Los Angeles Times