Why the Oscars fail to reach young viewers

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Last night, tens of millions tuned in to watch the 84th Annual Academy Awards, but I wasn’t among of them. Like many other young people, I didn’t catch the “Oscar Buzz.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I love movies. I watch one almost every day. I’m simply not a fan of awards shows and I get enough of Hollywood from the media already. When Oscar season is here, the pervasiveness of the awards coverage becomes particularly nauseating, so I don’t watch. It has little to do with Billy Crystal or Joan Rivers.

If I wasn’t shaking with anticipation for the red carpet walks, the tired comedy and the boring acceptance speeches last night, it wasn’t because they weren’t trying hard enough to reach me.

In weeks leading up to the awards, advertisers tried to generate Oscar excitement among the 20- and 30-year olds through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, smartphone apps, online ballots and discussion boards. Videos provided backstage access and interviews with the stars. Bloggers were paid to hype up the festivities. Hollywood made sure everyone knew about its big night.

Despite making Oscar promos available online and on-the-go, the academy has a problem keeping the awards relevant to young adults. The average age of an Oscars viewer is about 50 years old. That figure becomes a problem when the Academy relies on advertising revenues from the Oscars for much of its operations.

Advertisers want to reach a target audience of young people that may still be forming their shopping habits and that could become lifetime consumers of their products. Advertisers paid $1.7 million for 30 seconds of commercial time during the awards, but most of the people in the audience were baby boomers.

To get feedback from younger viewers, analysts will now collect demographic data as well as positive and negative feedback from comments, posts and votes from sites about both the Oscars and the ads. The responses they collect from people commenting on awards and ads, however, may not tell them much about the people they want to reach most: those who didn’t watch and who didn’t care enough to comment.

The advertisers and analysts will spend millions trying to figure out why manufactured excitement for the Oscars is a failed strategy, but here are a few that come to mind without the need for costly market research.

Part of the problem the Academy and its commercial sponsors face is that young adults with income are already bombarded heavily with Hollywood images and stories. Celebrity gossip shows, tabloid magazines, morning shows and commercials spots try to sell them something every day. All they have to do is turn on the television or walk outside.

By the time the Oscar season arrives, young people have reached their saturation point with celebrity endorsements. Viewers don’t care at that point if a celebrity nominated for an Oscar is featured in a commercial aired during the awards. It’s more of the same with nothing new to see.

In addition, the Oscars buzz about movies becomes a rerun of every behind-the-scenes, all-access marketing spot viewers saw at the time of its release. It’s the same stars with the same superficial interviews all over again with the word Oscar thrown in.

Another issue is that big budget, high-art movies are often better received at Oscar time than many of the low-budget “indie” movies many young people actually prefer and watch more than once. Some young people have difficulty giving the Oscars much credibility when they don’t recognize their film favorites with nominations or awards. They certainly don’t tune in to see the results for films that never attracted their attention in the first place.

The Oscars doesn’t have to turn into the MTV Movie Awards to reach young people, but it does have to recognize the values of the audience it wants to reach.

Finally, if the academy wants to make its awards more relevant to young people, its writers, actors, directors and producers in Hollywood should work harder to make movies that this demographic cares about. If there are films young people relate to competing closely in several categories, these folks may tune in to the awards rather than learning the results from the news the next day.