The Academy Awards tries for edgier voice, younger fans

To some, it's a worldwide cultural sacrament - one of the few national, even global, campfire events, uniting mankind into a cozy village, if only for a few hours.

To others, it's the apex of public-relations gasbaggery - a deft but ultimately superficial elevation of a mere trade event into universal high culture.

These opposing views aren't new, but this year there's extra lighter fluid on these "campfire" flames.

At issue is the selection of controversial comedian Chris Rock to host the extravaganza, which has seen viewership steadily decline in recent years even as it boasts a broadcast reach upwards of 1 billion.

Does the younger, edgier - many say raunchier - Mr. Rock give a fresh boost to the graying institution of old Hollywood? Or does the comedian's reputation for sexual innuendo and generally harsh language represent another notch downward in the coarsening of America?

At the very least, Rock's arrival, with its ensuing debate, confirms the growing importance of the host at this venerable "old lady" of award shows - which used to be a rare chance for the public to glimpse their favorite stars.

"Whatever you want to say about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they've always been very open to change," says Robert Osborne, author of "75 Years of the Oscar." "They're always given flak for getting old and stodgy and slow to move, but they've really tried to stay ahead of the critics over the years. The [choice of Rock] is a signal they are once again willing to try new things."

Whether the change is good, bad, or neutral is the subject of heated debate as Sunday approaches. Host network ABC has announced a five-second delay to avoid inflaming the Federal Communications Commission, in the hot seat since the baring of Janet Jackson's breast in a "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Mr. Rock has said that he can and will keep it clean. ("I've been on TV and been funny not cursing," he told "60 Minutes" last week.)

On the surface, Mr. Osborne and others seem to agree, the choice of Rock - called "the funniest man in America" by Entertainment Weekly magazine, but one of the most irreverent by many conservative groups - is a clear appeal for higher ratings. All kinds of award shows - including the recent Golden Globes and Grammy shows - have seen a downward spiral of viewership in recent years, especially in the 18- to 49-year-old age bracket.

Some wonder why that has happened - and what the new face of Rock, who is younger and more caustic than recent hosts Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, and Whoopi Goldberg, bodes for one of America's most visible institutions of pop culture. Oscar producer Gil Cates has said that the choice of Rock is just part of a total revamp of the show.

"Chris is a very smart man and he understands quite clearly the difference between the scatological observations he can make on cable television specials and to be funny within the boundaries allowed on the networks," says Mr. Cates in his daily producer's blog at Oscar.com. He reminds viewers that Rock spent five years on the NBC show "Saturday Night Live."

Conservative organizations in several states have come out against the choice of Rock. "We think this shows that Hollywood just doesn't get it that the country is fed up with rudeness, crudeness, and depravity," says Robert Knight, director of the Culture & Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America, the nation's largest public-policy women's group. After screening several of Rock's comedy shows for HBO, Mr. Knight says Rock's repeated use of the "f" word, discussion of sex in graphic detail, and praise for abortion make him "an inappropriate role model" - regardless of whether he tones down his act for the Oscar presentation.

"Why put a guy like this in the spotlight if you don't want to promote that view of life?" asks Knight. "Because that is the view of life that Hollywood thinks is reality, and they want to inflict it on the rest of the country."

But Rock has lots of defenders as well. He is often compared to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy - both role models for Rock who pushed the envelope - and Rock fans say his very appeal is the honesty of "telling it like it is" and "not pulling any punches."

"He is such a strong observational talent [that] he grabs the world and holds it up for us to see.... That's his gift," says Fred Talbott of the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, who teaches comedy to MBA students. "He's true to the street to what America really is. He picks [audiences] up and shakes them. He doesn't try to sweet-talk things [but rather] holds a mirror."

In the view of Professor Talbott and others, the choice of Rock simply reprises a familiar strategy. Billy Crystal, they point out, who is now considered "mainstream America," was once considered too hip and avant-garde by many - as the actor who played the first regular gay character on a network series, "Soap."

"They wrote the same story when Billy Crystal took over from Johnny Carson and when Letterman took it from [Crystal]," says Mike Hammer, editor in chief of Stuff Magazine. Now, he says, "every kid thinks Chris Rock is cool and Billy Crystal is an artifact. The television audience is graying and the target demo is younger people, and the only way to attract them is with personalities who don't do jokes about LBJ and Charlie Weaver. They need edge, and Chris Rock has it on his résumé."

Other observers say that it is certainly possible that Rock will take the opportunity to transform himself into a more mainstream comic like Crystal and Martin - or at least expand on his core audiences and broaden his appeal.

"He has a thin line to walk," says Dr. Robert R. Butterworth, a psychologist and media commentator based in Los Angeles. "Part of the dynamic of America these days is that what is termed 'edgy' for the East and West Coast is often considered over the cliff to middle America."

Given the time delay, it's unlikely that Rock will try anything potentially bleep-able, say most observers. Beyond that, he's far too smart to pass up the opportunity to expand his persona. Says Oscar historian Osborne: "It can really make him for the broad mainstream if he's smart enough to be witty without crossing that line."

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