By Dawn C. Chmielewski and Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
February 28, 2011
It was no coincidence that the theme of ABC's telecast of the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony was "You're Invited."
As never before, cinephiles this year were able to customize their personal Oscar viewing, becoming in effect the directors and editors of their own private narrow-casts.
For this year's ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC had promised viewers a "second screen" experience to accompany the broadcast, in which they could turn to their laptops or portable devices to glimpse unfiltered coverage of the red carpet arrivals, get behind-the-scenes peeks of guests schmoozing at the lobby bar inside the Kodak Theatre and gain entry into the invitation-only Governors Ball.
The academy and ABC's "Oscar All Access" digital offering aimed to tap into modern audiences' multi-tasking tendencies. According to a new survey from Deloitte, three-quarters of people who watch TV are doing something else simultaneously, such as going online, talking on their cellphones or sending text messages.
Encouraging hand-held technology and online participation were supposed to lift the velvet rope of exclusivity and allow the hoi polloi access to Oscar's proverbial Green Room. Some tech bloggers and news pundits even predicted that in 2011 mobile devices could fundamentally alter the Oscar-viewing experience.
If the actual results were mixed, they also underscored that Americans increasingly are embracing an interactive two-screen (or three- or four-screen) approach to consuming large-scale entertainment events.
The Oscar.com website lured subscribers with "exclusive cameras and content" at a price of $4.99. For 99 cents, customers could download an application for Apple's iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch that essentially offered the same package of privileged backstage views supplied by multiple cameras and supplemental commentary.
A much-touted feature of the various apps were multiple, strategically placed cameras with tantalizing names like Fashion Cam, Famous Faces and Paparazzi Cam. The so-called "360" cameras stationed on the grand staircase of the Kodak Theatre, the red carpet and elsewhere impressively knitted together panoramic images of the milling arrivals, with exterior panning shots of the Hollywood & Highland complex and Hollywood Boulevard.
"This is something [that's] never been done before," a young female Web host exclaimed early in the evening, reflecting the huge promotion surrounding the academy's high-tech strategy.
That wasn't exactly true. But the evidence suggests that the bugs still are being worked out, as some of the same problems that have plagued live streaming of sporting events occasionally bedeviled the Oscars.
At times, the video quality was reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, with frozen and pixilated images and jerky camera movements as the videographer rapidly zoomed in on a celebrity and just as quickly pulled back for crowd scenes. In one red-carpet close-up of Colin Firth, the blurry image looked like the lead actor nominee had been photographed in a rainstorm.
Meanwhile, viewers accustomed to a narrated account of the celebrity arrivals were instead greeted with ambient crowd noise, occasionally interrupted by the disembodied voice of the announcer or a photographer instructing guests to look "straight ahead." Who was that blond accompanying actor Mark Ruffalo? The iPad viewer was left guessing.
Another camera, stationed in the lobby bar, offered close-ups of rows of glasses, skinny women in backless dresses and a bartender's balding pate, but not much in the way of dramatic revelation.
Although the arrival segments were spotty, the backstage scenes afforded more of the exclusive access and add-on entertainment value that the Academy and ABC had promised. Throughout the show, viewers could look over the shoulder of director Don Mischer, waving his pencil like a baton while choosing among 15 camera angles for the ceremony, displayed on screens in front of him.
Other backstage cameras captured the energy of the press room. Online viewers could watch supporting actress winner Melissa Leo being grilled about dropping the f-bomb in her acceptance speech. Meanwhile, on their living-room TVs, those same viewers could have seen screenwriter David Seidler accepting his Academy Award for original screenplay, declaring to all stutterers of the world, "We have a voice. We have been heard."
But, even backstage, there were glitches. The Press Room, Winners Photo and Thank You cams were static for long stretches. The 360 Press Room Cam served up dark, blurry shots of mobs of journalists in their rented tuxedos. The Audience Cam, with its anonymous, long-view scans of the live theater audience during commercial breaks, felt a bit Big Brother-ish.
What the relentless words and imagery really could have used, at times, was a good editor — a difficult task with live streaming.
Viewers used other forms of social media to insert themselves into this year's Oscar conversation. The academy reported — via Twitter, naturally — that 1,600 Oscar-related tweets were being sent every minute at one point in the evening.
Even the president of the United States chose to weigh in, observing, "Did you know, "As Time Goes By" is the AFI's No. 2 greatest song of all time?" Play it again, Barack.
Breaking the fourth wall between actor and spectator, the show's co-host James Franco turned the camera on the audience. As he took the stage with co-presenter Anne Hathaway, Franco captured footage of the audience staring up at him through the stage lights, then shared it with the online audience on Twitter.
This year's Oscars also gave viewers a chance to voice their forecasts of winners. Dave Bullock, chief executive of LiveHive Systems, the company that operated the real-time balloting, said millions of people went online to register their predictions of who would take home a gold statuette.
"We're restricted on disclosing specific numbers," Bullock said. "But I can tell you, it is a huge watershed moment for co-viewing."
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