New podcast: Should religious leaders and the cultural right applaud lousy Oscar ratings?

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Pick a headline, just about any Oscar headline.

The ratings for the 2021 Academy Awards were bad. How bad? Here’s the take from the world-weary folks at Entertainment Weekly: “Oscars hit another historic low in ratings.”

The New York Post has been known to produce blunt headlines. Thus: “Oscar ratings drop to an all-time low with unwatchable show.”

But what matters, of course, is what runs in prestige settings such as The New York Times. The big business-desk headline there provided some extra, rather acidic, context:

Oscars Ratings Plummet, With Fewer Than 10 Million Tuning In

Sunday night’s pandemic-restricted telecast drew 58 percent fewer viewers than last year’s record low.

Wait, there’s more bad news:

Among adults 18 to 49, the demographic that many advertisers pay a premium to reach, the Oscars suffered an even steeper 64 percent decline, according to preliminary data from Nielsen. …

[The] Oscars have been on a slide since 1998, when 57.2 million people tuned in to see “Titanic” sweep to best-picture victory.

What’s the religion-news hook in this story, other than the semi-religious role that the Oscar rites play in the cult of Hollywood? That was the subject of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in or head over to Apple Podcasts to sign up for a weekly feed.

Let’s walk through this.

Conservative critics of Hollywood — a tribe that includes quite a few religious folks — have celebrated the plunging Oscar ratings, noting the rising tide of woke speeches by many winners as well as the many nominations for edgy, independent films with messages that appeal to blue-zip-code critics, while failing to connect with the masses in flyover country. There is a Trumpian sound to some of this, but it is actually a culture split that has been around for decades. Can you say “Moral Majority”? How about “Boycott Disney”?

At the same time, the masses truly love some Hollywood products. Take, for example, the superstar-packed superhero franchises that tend to be ignored at Oscar time (other than statues for technical excellence). But note: Those tentpole movies are another product from the same Hollywood machine. Conservatives are, in effect, moaning about one kind of prestige Hollywood product, while buying kazillions of tickets to another.

It’s also clear that there are technical changes that are affecting the marketplace, with digital life chopping the American public into more and more niche groups that watch niche movies and stream niche cable shows.

Every now and then, once a decade at least, Hollywood notices the potential to push small- and modest-budget movies to a Christian niche. Just a few years ago, some Hollywood observers were saying that “Christian” might be “the new gay.” What does that mean? The idea is that LGBTQ-market films are now old news. Maybe studios could risk making content for a Christian niche?

You can see some of these themes, but not all, in this long chunk of a Los Angeles Times story about the Oscar blues:

The [ratings] decline is even steeper among viewers ages 18 to 49, the demographic group desired most by advertisers. In 2015-16, an average of 29.6% of that group was watching in prime time. In the current TV season, it’s down to 16.2%. …

Social media also has chipped away at awards show viewing. Real-time reporting across various platforms reveals the winners, speech highlights, audience reactions and what designer clothes are being worn on the red carpet. …

Additionally, while there is no way to quantify the impact on viewing, networks have conducted research showing some audience members don’t want to hear stars presenting their political positions on the programs.

Although stars have used the Oscars as a political forum going back to the time when Marlon Brando sent a Native American activist to the stage to refuse his best actor award in 1973, today’s politically polarized audience has plenty of other viewing options.

The Oscars also have had to contend with academy members favoring smaller, niche-appeal films in recent years, and history has shown that the public is more invested in the telecast when it celebrates broad-based successes. (The Oscars audience grew 12% in 2019 when “Green Book” and “Black Panther,” both box office hits, had multiple nominations.)

This brings me to another Oscar-angle story discussed during the podcast: The impassioned speech delivered by Tyler Perry when he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which focuses on the humanitarian efforts of Hollywood stars and moguls.

Perry, of course, is known for making movies that play well in the heartland, especially with Black church crowds and, to a lesser degree, generic church audiences — period. Most of these films are morality tales in which the wages of sin are clearly very bad, while religious believers who do the right thing manage to get on the right side of plot twists during the last act. In some cases, we are literally talking about sinners walking down church aisles to get right with Jesus, the church and their families.

Critics hate these movies and it’s clear that, in their eyes, Tyler is promoting the wrong brand of diversity. With that in mind, consider the quotes in the Tyler speech that received the most attention:

“I refuse to hate someone because they are Mexican or because they are Black or white or LGBTQ. I refuse to hate someone because they are a police officer. I refuse to hate someone because they are Asian.”

He dedicated his award to anyone willing to “stand in the middle” with him.

“Because that’s where healing happens, that’s where conversation happens, that’s where change happens, it happens in the middle,” he said. “So anyone who wants to meet me in the middle to refuse hate, to refuse blanket judgment and to help lift someone’s feet off the ground, this one is for you too.”

At the The Federalist, the conservative take on that was obvious: “Tyler Perry Stuns Oscars With Powerful Rebuke Of Hate.” Concerning the “I refuse to hate” litancy, this essay noted:

The audience erupted into applause at the outset of this section. The claps and cheers began conspicuously fading the moment he mentioned police officers.

Frequently, when celebrities speak out against hate, they are preaching against some nebulous bigotry that the woke elite erroneously ascribe to all conservatives, of which they are always exempt. It must have been shocking to hear, at the Oscars no less, support for a group they desire to despise with impunity.

Meanwhile, a culture-beat specialist at NBC — #GASP — went the other way, seeing this as another example of Perry trying to appeal to the non-woke. From this perspective, Hollywood has not gone far enough in challenging ordinary, middle America.

In theory, standing in the middle — where, as Perry put it, “conversation happens” — sounds great. When dealing with issues of systemic racism, however, the model is lacking. If one side is denying the humanity of the other, and that conditional understanding of humanity is built into the laws and culture of our country, the middle is still going to be a good ways short of anything resembling justice.

Moreover, in practice — at least where Hollywood is concerned — standing in the middle usually means never carrying your convictions far enough to create meaningful change. 

So there.

While cheering for Tyler, Hollywood critics on the right do need to stop and ponder why Perry — along with his pal Oprah Winfrey — represent the American middle ground. In part, their success is evidence of decades of apathy or antipathy among cultural conservatives when it comes to offering quality alternatives in the entertainment media marketplace.

I’ll end with this quote from a speech by the late Paul Weyrich that I heard two decades ago at a meeting of the Home School Legal Defense Association, meeting in Washington, D.C. For those who don’t know that name, Weyrich was one of the patriarchs of the Religious Right and cultural conservatism, in general.

Obviously, the goal in this speech was to praise the home-school movement, and Weyrich did that. But he also offered an interesting twist, a softly stated warning that remains relevant to today’s debates about Hollywood and mainstream media. This is from an “On Religion” column that I wrote in 1999, which included a discussion of why Weyrich thought it was wrong for many conservative parents to unplug their television sets in an attempt to escape American life altogether.

It will be hard for home-schooled children to have any cultural impact, said Weyrich, if they’ve been systematically taught to reject all of their culture — the good as well as the bad. This hit home when he tried to find talented Christian humorists to take part in an alternative television project.

“If we totally drop out, we aren’t going to produce any alternative voices in American life,” said Weyrich. “We won’t have any humor or music or movies or literature or anything else that Americans will be able to turn to, when the culture hits bottom. We really can’t afford to become the new Amish. That would be a disaster for us and, I believe, for America.”

Think about it.

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