TV awash in Oscar-mania

Specials, marathons remind viewers why past films rated a statuette

It may be all about movies, but the Academy Awards, airing March 24 on ABC, is really like the Superbowl.

As a TV event watched around the world, the Oscars ceremony has developed its own TV personality over the years. Today the show is sophisticated - if sometimes less than tasteful - fast-paced, and frantically visual.

This year, the televised festivities start early. Three cable networks will celebrate Oscar in their own ways (check local listings). Beginning this Monday, March 11, The Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene" series will air three documentaries celebrating three Oscar nominees, the independent movies "Memento," "Gosford Park," and "Monster's Ball." The Encore channel will dedicate Oscar weekend to Academy Award-winning films of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. And TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is digging into the distant past for a month-long celebration of Oscar winners in various categories for its "31 Days of Oscar."

"The Oscars are not just about Julia Roberts" and celebrity, says Jonathan Shair, executive producer of programming at Encore. During Encore's "weekend of Oscar," Leonard Maltin will provide insights into past Oscar-winning films.

"Everyone wants to be attached to the movies - it's not just about the allure of celebrity," Mr. Shair says. "It's also about the hard work and the history of the movies. You can rediscover it all and look at [a movie] in a new light." For example, the Tom Cruise vehicle "Born on the Fourth of July" won best film editing in 1989, he says. Now viewers can look at it again and see why.

Says Academy Awards historian and TCM host Robert Osborne, "I think it is increasingly difficult to have an exciting Oscar show because there are so many awards shows. Academy Awards used to be the one place you could turn to watch great names and great stars you could never see on television otherwise.

"Last year, when the ratings slipped later in the show, some people said, 'Well, why should I stay up late and watch Julia Roberts when I've already seen her give that thank you speech four times already?' "

What makes a great Oscar show, he says, "is when you have a top-of-the-line, very sharp MC" (Whoopi Goldberg will preside this year) and "exciting nominees."

And two or three people who are not often seen on TV. "This year, Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford are receiving [honorary] awards - that should be exciting."

But Oscar night is not as much fun as it once was, Mr. Osborne says. The stars have to dress early in the day, arrive by 5 p.m., are given nothing to eat or drink, and then have to sit for more than seven hours. But then, of course, they can help themselves to mounds of food at the lavish post-Oscar parties.

Pre-television, the Oscars was a dinner party. Now everything is designed to please the TV cameras, not the attendees.

The whole Oscar phenomenon has changed so much because in the past, if Hollywood wanted a top-grossing film, it had to win an Oscar.

In the '50 and '60s, movies like "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia" won Oscars and everyone went to see them. But then came movies like "Star Wars," "The Terminator," and "Dumb and Dumber," which proved Hollywood could make megadollars movies that didn't win Oscars.

An Oscars win isn't as important anymore, Osborne says. The big difference today is that smaller films are being recognized, and Oscars do make a big difference for these independent films. "The Academy Awards offers independent film a huge platform that reaches a much broader audience," says Sundance Channel's Adam Pincus, executive producer of the fine documentary series "Anatomy of a Scene."

They also recognize that movies are more than stars and directors. "Film is an enormously collaborative art, and the Oscars acknowledge that," Mr. Pincus says. "They do their best to [honor] all the skilled people involved."

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