Is Hollywood sanctimony boring viewers?

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Awards season is upon us here in Los Angeles, which can mean only one thing: Hollywood activism — the speeches, the sermons, the finger-wagging — is on full-display.

So are the bellowing, boisterous attacks against it, led by British comedian Ricky Gervais whose Golden Globes opening monologue going after Hollywood sanctimony is still the talk of the town.

But the hypocrisy police should take a breath and calm down, because Tinsel Town piety now threatens to become that thing most dreaded in the entertainment industry: routine, expected, maybe even a little bit boring.

Year after year, audience surveys and focus groups show that celebrity homilies are the aspect viewers most dislike about awards shows — even more than best-song medleys or opening-number dance routines. No one likes being lectured to, not by their Uncle Eddie and not by beautiful rich people surrounded by live television cameras.

Advertisers and broadcasters worry about activist moments, too, concerned that many people at home will change the channel. Ratings for most awards shows have steadily declined over the last decade. There are several reasons for this; the increased infusion of politics no doubt contributes.

There actually was a time when an awards-show political speech was so rare that it generated worldwide headlines. Among the first: When Marlon Brando won the best-actor Oscar for “The Godfather” in 1973, an Apache woman named Sacheen Littlefeather stepped up to the podium to decline the award in his name, citing the mistreatment of Native Americans both on screen and in American society.  It set off a frenzy of media coverage.

Things have changed. In the last decade alone, the Academy Awards broadcast has featured political speeches about President Trump’s travel ban (2017), climate change and voting rights (2016), women’s wage equity (2015), crises in Venezuela and Ukraine (2014), and the killing of dolphins (2010).

Each moment generates some publicity for a cause but, in most cases, quickly fades away, gobbled up the constant churn of tweets, posts, blogs, short videos and short attention spans.

When Littlefeather read her statement in 1973, boos rose up from the Oscar audience – not because people disagreed with her but because such politicking was seen as inappropriate for an awards show. Now, most speeches are simply given polite applause as the evening moves on. It has all come to seem like a bit of earnest Kabuki, with each moment and movement a part of an established tradition.

Given all this, you’d think celebrities would cease and desist. But they don’t. The main reason: ego. (In Hollywood, ego is always the main reason.) It’s hard to resist a little preaching with a billion people watching worldwide. But there’s another motivation: Sometimes — even amid our media cacophony and cynicism about motivations — Hollywood activism can make a difference.

Russell Crowe was not there to pick up his Golden Globe last week. Presenter Jennifer Aniston read a note from the actor, who was home in Australia, fighting to protect his family from wildfires scorching large sections of the country. His remarks brought attention to what had been an under-reported catastrophe.

In 2018, the Academy Awards featured several dramatic moments centered on the burgeoning #MeToo movement. Sexual abuse allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein had come to light just a couple of months earlier; the Oscar focus kept the issue in the headlines and kept the pressure on Hollywood and other industries to make changes.

For better or worse, then, expect celebrity sermons to continue.

Would-be speechmakers should keep in mind that virtue comes with a price, especially on the West Coast. Ratings for the #MeToo- dominated 2018 Oscars were the lowest on record, and a 20 percent drop from the year before. Fingers of blame point in various directions — from changing TV habits to unpopular nominees, and — of course — celebrity politics.

And we should all be warned: They will continue because every once in a while, someone will say something that hits home, gets your attention, and makes you think.

That is still something Hollywood can do well. 

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags Academy Awards actors American television celebrities in politics Donald Trump Entertainers Golden Globes Hollywood Marlon Brando Me Too movement Oscars Ricky Gervais Sacheen Littlefeather

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