The 2019 Oscars Could Be the Shortest in 30 Years. But Will Anyone Show Up to Watch?

February 6, 2019, 12:08 AM UTC

If you happen to be up for an Academy Award this month, you may want to keep your acceptance speech brief.

Following years of erratic ratings and lengthy running times, ABC promises the 91st Academy Awards—which airs on Feb. 24—will be kept to three hours, a length the telecast hasn’t seen since at the least the mid-eighties.

That relatively slimmed-down duration is “the main goal” of the show’s producers, noted Karey Burke, the president of ABC Entertainment, during a session with TV critics and reporters on Tuesday. She also confirmed that, for the first time in decades, the awards will go hostless. That change, Burke insisted, would allow “the presenters and the movies be the stars. That’s the best way to keep the show to a brisk three hours.”

As Burke noted, such promises have been made in the past, including with last year’s telecast. That show, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, ran for nearly four hours, and concluded with Best Picture being handed to The Shape of Water. About 26.5 million viewers in the United States tuned in for the event, making for the lowest-watched Academy Awards ceremony in history.

While that was a devastating number, it was hardly a surprise, as ratings for the annual show have been on the decline for several years. The Oscars hit a modern peak in 1998, when the telecast attracted about 57 million stateside viewers, thanks in no small part to the presence of Titanic. A few years later, in 2001, nearly 43 million U.S. viewers tuned in to watch Gladiator win Best Picture. Such numbers seem unattainable now, as recent broadcasts have barely beaten the 40-million-viewer mark.

To keep viewers interested this year, ABC is considering some radical changes. Some of the less celeb-heavy categories will likely be dropped from the televised portion of the show, though it hasn’t been announced which ones will be cut. And for the first time since 1989, the show won’t have a dedicated host: Kevin Hart accepted the job last year, only to abandon the gig following an uproar over several of the comedian’s controversial tweets.

At one point, it looked as though the show’s traditional musical numbers would even be reduced, though the Academy recently confirmed the show will include live performances of such tunes as the Lady Gaga-Bradley Cooper duet “Shallow” from A Star Is Born.

Yet even with the presence of Gaga, the Oscars’ biggest problems in recent years—its lack of big-name movies, and its oft-bloated running time—still loom large. Academy Award telecasts featuring high-profile, box-office-dominating hits traditionally tend to perform better (ratings went up in 2004, when The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King swept the awards, winning eleven trophies, including Best Picture). And while this year’s Best Picture nominees include such box-office hits as Black Panther, A Star is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody, that may not be enough to significantly goose ratings.

Even if the year’s big-name choices do lure viewers, it may be hard to get them to tune into a show that’s often perceived—whether fairly or not—as an unbearably drawn-out slog. A 2012 analysis by Slate found that the show’s running time began to bloat in the eighties, which is when it began to reliably break past the three-hour mark. (In 2002, it ran an astonishing four hours and twenty-three minutes—nearly enough time to watch that year’s Best Picture winner, A Beautiful Mind, twice.) Even if the 2019 show does come in under the three-hour mark, there’s no guarantee viewers will stick around that sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-long