Commentary: Shouldn’t The Oscars Broadcast Represent America?

When it comes to televised award shows, here’s a little something you may have never considered. While the show’s TV producers have no say over who gets nominated, or who wins, they have significant control over who appears as the host and all of those who turn up as presenters.  That’s why the list of Oscar presenters, released this morning, is rather disappointing.

To be fair, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have done a reasonable job with African-American representation; ten of this year’s 46 announced presenters are black. But Latinos? One Hispanic, Penelope Cruz. Not a single Asian-American. And certainly no artists with disabilities. Put simply, albeit via cliché, The Oscars don’t look like America. And they should.

The Oscars are usually the most watched TV entertainment event of the year, though they trail sports, especially the Super Bowl, by a significant margin. But unlike football, which is primarily a North American phenomenon, the movies are international, and we’re constantly being reminded in press releases and news accounts about the size of the Oscars’ international viewership (you can almost hear Dr. Evil purring, “One billion viewers.”). As with movies themselves, the Oscar broadcast is perhaps the greatest one-night cultural export America has to offer.

I don’t for a moment think that Craig and Neil aren’t sensitive to these issues; they admirably stood fast when some quarters questioned the casting of Audra McDonald as an Austrian nun in the TV The Sound of Music in December, choosing talent above all. But by the time decisions about on-air talent wend their way through the Academy approvals and ABC’s hierarchy, a lot of voices have been heard, and I have no doubt that prognostications about who might help drive Oscar ratings yields the slate now public.

This is not to excuse the broader Academy from remaining largely the bastion of white men, despite recent efforts to expand the voting pool. The film industry itself – and it’s hardly alone in this – needs to open itself to greater inclusion regardless of gender, race, or disability, before we can expect its governing pantheon to change. That’s when we will see a wider range of experience portrayed in film, and a wider range of artists nominated and receiving awards.

It is being reported again and again that diversity is good business for Hollywood; that diverse casts draw broader audiences here at home and open up foreign markets less interested in stories about white Americans. So shouldn’t the Oscars follow what their industry’s own market research shows them: that by utilizing the talents of artists beyond white and black, they can show Hollywood – and America – to its best advantage and probably draw more viewers in the process. That’s where presenters can make all the difference in the world.

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