U.S. Markets open in 8 hrs 52 mins

And the Oscar for Best Meme Goes to...

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

It must have been a thrill, or at least a remarkable novelty, to watch the first televised broadcast of the Academy Awards ceremony in 1953. It was the first time the larger-than-life stars of the big screen — so many of them, all dolled up and beaming — were delivered right into the living room.

Things have changed. Movie stars are not a seldom-glimpsed species anymore, and as a culture we’re less fixated on the big screen than the little bitty ones we carry in our pockets. And yet the Oscars still draw quite a crowd — of 40 million viewers last year, for instance — and the broadcast remains one of the year’s biggest advertising events.

But why do people still watch the Oscars? Is it about the movies? The celebrities? Or, in the social media era, is it all about us?

In 2014 it’s about the stars and us — in a relationship that would have baffled, and perhaps horrified, the Hollywood royalty gathered to see The Greatest Show On Earth take Best Picture 61 years ago. In those days there was a distance and mystery to movie stars that gave them a shot at achieving writer Virginia Postrel’s idea of “the power of glamour.”

But nobody today watches a celeb-stuffed awards show in a state of starstruck awe. In fact, many watch for basically the opposite reason: to witness (and digitally share or comment on), the humanizing gaffes, the goofy moments, things that could become GIFs or memes.

It’s not even about what the stars say and do at the ceremony, but what they say and do on social media. Think about what the most recent Grammy broadcast added to popular culture: Pharrell’s hat, Taylor Swift’s GIF-able reaction to losing, Macklemore’s post-event public text-admission that someone else should have won Best Rap Album. 

This may sound more cynical than I intend. Perhaps, as Shia LeBeouf or Alec Baldwin could tell you, we live in a meaner media culture. At the least, we now approach this spectacle with no particular reverence — and with the assumption that the audience (certainly not the Academy) is fully in charge of deciding which moments from the show really matter. And those moments are unlikely to be the mere revelation of who won Best Supporting Whatever.

Tommy Wesely, BuzzFeed’s director of development and a contributing editor to the site’s Celeb section, says that covering the Oscars or similar awards shows is all about recognizing “gem moments” from the broadcast — the three to 30 seconds of, say Emma Thompson flinging her shoes at the Golden Globes, or Jennifer Lawrence photobombing Taylor Swift. (Or, he adds, Jennifer Lawrence doing almost anything: “I love me some Jennifer Lawrence.”) By now, Wesely suggests, “Awards shows would be foolish not to almost plan those moments.”

Feeding the buzz
This raises the interesting question of how an entity like BuzzFeed, which specializes in recognizing and amplifying such pop-culture moments, goes about its task: covering a televised broadcast of a movie-industry event for a digital-device audience.

Wesely says 10 or so staffers watch the show (and various run-up broadcasts) together at the BuzzFeed office in New York, with others participating from elsewhere — including reporters at the actual ceremony. They monitor the broadcast itself, but also the Instagram and Twitter feeds of various celebrities and observers. “It’s a late night for the team,” he says, and even when it’s over there are recaps and other material to spin out the day after. 

In short, the Academy Awards have evolved from spectacle to fodder. What used to be a controlled opportunity for the unwashed Us to observe a rarefied Them has become more of a cultural mosh pit. And the chief complaints about the broadcast — it’s too long, often boring and overly self-congratulatory — have been converted from bug to feature: Now there’s plenty of free time for the audience to build its own entertainment from the raw material provided by the show.

Do the movies even matter?
Now, you may have noticed that I’ve given rather short shrift to the possibility that the Academy Awards ceremony is about the actual movies.

It is true that the big screen remains a big deal — even if you filter the wild hype about box office figures through more reality-based inflation adjustment. But even a decade ago, the Academy’s own research had deduced that many viewers of the awards broadcast had seen something on the order of none of the nominated films. (“They’re more interested in seeing the stars,” an Academy exec told me back then. “It’s kind of scary.”)

At the time, organizers were tweaking the show to compete with rival awards broadcasts — changing the schedule and later expanding the number of nominations for Best Picture. There are nine this year, but a recent poll found that two-thirds of Americans still hadn’t seen any of them. That’s even more remarkable when you consider that — as my colleague Alyssa Bereznak pointed out the other day — a surprising number of Oscar-nominated films are already available online.

So, sure, the audience remains curious about which movies, stars and filmmakers prevail. Somebody’s got to win the office Oscar pool, after all. But the real suspense will be witnessing what emerges as Best Meme. It’s the one category nobody can predict.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. The RSS feed for my columns and posts is right here.