Why the Oscars can afford to get political

CNN  — 

For years, conservatives have railed against Hollywood’s liberal political leanings, gleefully citing declining award-show ratings as proof that people were turned off by civics lectures from privileged stars.

Yet as the industry prepares for what could be one of the more political Oscar telecasts in memory, the danger to Oscar ratings posed by that dynamic appears minimal, if the trajectory of what’s known as “awards season” thus far is any guide.

At this point, the Academy of Motion Picture arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars, and ABC, which televises it, should have little to fear in terms of alienating potential viewers. That’s because tune-out among those likely to be seriously put off by hearing actors weigh into the political fray has to be pretty well baked into the formula.

Other awards that have aired in the run-up to the Oscars – the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and most recently the Grammys – haven’t paid a price, despite on-stage denunciations of the Trump administration. In late night, Stephen Colbert’s surge ahead of Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” looks directly related to his status as a go-to source of Donald Trump putdowns.

The Academy Awards, admittedly, provide a much bigger stage, second only to playoff football among annual televised events. But its viewership drop over the years – to about 34.4 million viewers in 2016, the lowest number since 2008 – can be traced to numerous factors, including the sheer glut of awards ceremonies, a more fragmented content marketplace and a schism between the art-house movies that get nominated and the blockbusters more people see.

Politics have doubtless played a role as well, and there’s no question that a vast portion of the public is hostile toward Hollywood. It’s just that after a steady diet of political acceptance speeches and conservative condemnation, it’s hard to imagine many people being surprised to see references to reality intrude on this annual ode to make-believe and glamor.

“The Avengers” movies might not be political, but anyone paying attention knows that most of its stars advocated strongly for Hillary Clinton. Ditto for actors like Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, who haven’t been bashful about making their views known.

Given that, those who watch the Oscars can’t convincingly feign shock over being subjected to liberal opinions. If you’re a conservative who hasn’t given up on the show already over those political overtones, it’s likely because you don’t much care, sort of enjoy being offended or just want to know what Rush Limbaugh and “Fox & Friends” will be griping about Monday morning.

For its part, entertainment community leaders have also become less squeamish than in the past, when overt political displays at the Oscars did produce discomfort and concern.

When a documentary filmmaker condemned the Vietnam War in 1975, host Frank Sinatra later read an apology that stressed the academy was “not responsible for any political references made on the program.”

In 2003, Michael Moore’s acceptance speech – in which he attacked the Bush administration over the Iraq war – triggered a mix of boos and cheers within the auditorium, and an attempt by host Steve Martin to defuse the situation with humor.

At the Grammys, by contrast, producer Ken Ehrlich came out before the show and urged award recipients during the broadcast to “say something important. We’re expecting it.”

The same is apparently true of advertisers, a historically skittish group when it comes to controversy. The Los Angeles Times reported that ABC has sold out its ad inventory – at healthy price increases from last year – and that media buyers are braced for political speeches being a part of the telecast.

The awards season has already reflected the entertainment and arts community’s activism and pushback against the results of last year’s election. Despite the somewhat cautious reputation of its organizers, the Oscars promise to be no exception.

So despite the red carpet and fine attire, expect a few sharp rhetorical elbows to fly. And those with a stake in the show’s performance are likely prepared to let the chips, and ratings, fall where they may.