To boycott or not to boycott? That’s the question faced by African-Americans regarding Sunday’s Academy Awards, torn between anger over the lack of black nominees in acting categories and curiosity over how comedian and host Chris Rock will handle the issue.
As has been well publicized, for the second straight year, all 20 acting nominees at Sunday’s Academy Awards are white. U.S. civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton is leading a nationwide “TV tune-out.” “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and “Creed” director Ryan Coogler are both bailing in favor of a benefit for the victims of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Dozens of black stars and filmmakers, including Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee, are calling for a boycott. The Oscars can effectively kiss its black audience this year goodbye, right? Well, it’s not that simple.
Rock is the first black Oscars host since, well, Rock himself in 2005, a year in which a quarter of the acting nominees — and half of the four winners — were black. The 2005 broadcast scored huge ratings, both with African-Americans and the television audience at large. Rock is back this year, but will host a ceremony with a very different makeup under a lot of scrutiny. Something has to give.
When he last hosted the Oscars more than a decade ago, the African-American audience was dialed in intently. More than 5.3 million black viewers watched the first black man — and the first African-American in general not named Whoopi Goldberg — to host the prestigious ceremony, good enough to comprise more than 12.5 percent of the broadcast’s total audience, data from Nielsen show. The numbers have not been that high since.
Was Rock the sole reason for the spike in black viewership? Probably not. In addition to the history-making host, five of the 20 acting nominees in 2005 were black. Jamie Foxx scored two nominations, one for Best Actor for “Ray” and one for Best Supporting Actor for “Collateral”; both Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo were nominated for “Hotel Rwanda,” for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively; and Morgan Freeman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for “Million Dollar Baby.” Foxx won for "Ray," while Freeman won for “Million Dollar Baby.” It remains the most successful year for black actors at the Oscars to date.
A peek back at ratings history reveals a not-so-surprising trend: More black viewers tune in when more black actors and actresses are nominated and vice versa, boycott or no. Since 2004, nearly 2 million more African-American viewers have tuned in when there are at least three black actors nominated as opposed to when there are two or one. In 2011, an all-white year before there was a hashtag to accompany it, African-American viewership dropped to 2.5 million, constituting a paltry 6.6 percent of the total audience.
Conversely, in 2007, two years after the Rock-hosted Oscars, there were again five black nominees, thanks to films like “Dreamgirls,” which scored Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson nominations, and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” for which Will Smith received a nod. African-American viewers totaled nearly 4.9 million, comprising 12.2 percent of the total TV audience, nearly equaling the proportional high of 2005, an indication that perhaps Rock was not the beginning and end of that year’s success story.
In 2016, there are no black actors nominated, but there is the comedian Rock. The appeal of seeing a black man hosting the awards for the first time in more than a decade, even if it is the same man, might be enough to entice African-American viewers to tune in at least to see what the provocative comedian might say about the controversy in his opening monologue. While Rock has stayed relatively mum on the subject of how, or even if, he will address the issue, he has made some tongue-in-cheek nods to the problem. On Thursday, days before the ceremony, he tweeted a video of a television blackout with the caption “See you Sunday ... #Blackout.”
— Chris Rock (@chrisrock) February 26, 2016
Rock’s monologue is primed to be can’t-miss television. Although, the bigger question may be: Does any of this matter to the academy?
In 2015, only 37.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the Oscars, the lowest total since 2009. Plus, while the last month has brought a barrage of criticism against the awards for their lack of diversity, as the old saying goes, “any press is good press.” For an institution long joked about as a stuffy dinosaur of pop culture, the Oscars has been the talk of the town every week since the nominations were announced. With all the buzz, it would seem very unlikely for the broadcast not to pick up more viewers.
In that climate, it might be hard for a boycott to make a real dent. For a broadcast that on average hovers around 40 million viewers, the 3.5 million average audience made up of African-Americans is just a drop in the bucket, right?
Not so fast. The difference between the highest rated Oscars broadcast of the last seven years (2014, for which 43.7 million people tuned in to see “12 Years a Slave” win Best Picture) and the lowest (2009’s lowly 36.3 million viewers) is only 7.4 million viewers. That means the African-American audience, which averages 3.5 million — but has proved it can swell to more than 5 million — can help determine whether an Oscars broadcast is a successful one, relatively speaking, even if a potential boycott does not have the power to cripple the long-running awards show.
That does not account for the fact that if the apparent black acting nominations to African-American viewers trend held true were the Academy to nominate more than five black actors in one year, the current record, that rating could potentially spike even higher. Not to mention the fact that an increasing number of white viewers may be sympathizing and reacting in step with African-Americans frustrated over the glaring lack of diversity.
While a free-fall in African-American viewership might not hit the academy members in their wallets right away, it could cause a significant image problem at a time when it is already reeling from the #OscarsSoWhite backlash.
“This is not a reputation that the academy wants to have,” Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York, told International Business Times’ Aaron Morrison in January. “[A boycott would be] significant culturally, especially if it started to strip away the glamour and all of the stuff that makes the Oscars fun to watch.”
A lot is at stake Sunday, and all eyes will be on Rock — unless, of course, they’re not.