Rick McGinnis:

Interim writer, Rick McGinnis, Amusements

Having worked as a movie critic on and off for over three decades, it’s around this time of year when I get asked who I think will win the Oscars. What are my picks – which is to say who do I think should win? And what do I think about the show, now infamous for its regular gaffes and scandals, its eruptions of celebrity ego, and its reliable tendency to go massively overtime every year?

And I have to be honest: I don’t care. I have no favorites or picks to win. It’s been years since I’ve seen most of the films under consideration, or more than one or two of the best picture nominees. I won’t watch it, though I might feel obliged to catch up with whatever wince-worthy highlight (lowlight?) transpired on YouTube in the following week.

And I’m not alone. Viewership has tumbled over the years. More than 46 million people watched in 2000, falling to 10.4 million in 2021, which recovered slightly to 18.7 million last year. In 1973 85 million viewers are reported to have tuned into the ceremonies.

Which is nothing compared the winter’s other televised spectacle, the Super Bowl. Viewership for the game was impressive when it aired for the first time in 1966 (a combined total of 51 million on CBS and NBC) but it actually peaked this year, with nearly 124 million viewers.

Last month, Sasha Stone wrote a lengthy essay on the awardsdaily.com website imagining “How the Oscars Can Be Like the Super Bowl (Again),” which began by admitting that nothing the Oscars could pull off could match the current star power of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce. (Unless they could manage to have the former slap the latter onstage; it worked before, but this time the response would be magnified almost infinitely. Don’t think someone somewhere in the team producing this year’s show hasn’t thought of it.)

Stone complains that “the Oscars have become like watching people at a movie premiere fenced off away from the rest of the attendees and far, far from the rabble of the public…Film Twitter likes this. Critics like it. A prominent film critic on Twitter once said, ‘What’s wrong with being elitist? I like being part of the elite’”

I don’t know what Film Twitter is. And despite being a film critic I can’t say I like it, if I think about it at all. Which, as I admitted earlier, I don’t. And at this point I can’t help but wonder what is drawing these massive numbers to the Super Bowl: the (to me, baffling) celebrity supernova Swift/Kelce entity? The half time show? The commercials?

For die-hard NFL fans who clear their Sunday for the game, I can’t imagine that these growing distractions aren’t irritating at least, rage-inducing at most. For anyone still watching the Oscars, on the other hand, the distractions are baked into the whole. It’s hard not to conclude that the Super Bowl has gradually come to resemble the Oscars, while leaching away its viewers.

At a time when so much of what’s worth watching on television is on a subscription-based streaming service, Stone notes that “no one needed a subscription to watch the Super Bowl or, for now, the Oscars. These two events used to be the most-watched in America. Now, only one is.”

“Is it better to have so many Americans together under one roof watching the same football game?” Stone asks. “Yes. Did the advertising tell us a lot about our culture again? Absolutely. Was it infused with the politics of only one political party? Yes, mostly. The in-group, not the out-group. But we are one country, not two. Events that bring us together are rare and almost non-existent.”

Alyssa Rosenberg asked similar questions in the Washington Post in 2019 (a time that seems like another era, as if a chasm had opened in the intervening years; I wonder what that could have been?) Comparing the Oscars and the Super Bowl, she writes that “the few remaining events that were supposed to count as mass spectacles have started to feel like voids rather than celebrations.”

Way back in this before-time, she noted that both events were having a hard time finding hosts for the ceremonies and headliners for the half time show. Comedian Kevin Hart had been canceled by Oscars’ producers after “homophobic” tweets were discovered in his past, and Rihanna and Cardi B had turned the Super Bowl down in support for Colin Kaepernick, but Maroon 5 took the gig, delivering a predictably generic performance that was probably the most politically appropriate response to the situation.

Rosenberg quotes the Post’s music critic, Chris Richards, who wrote that “there are only two ways to survive a Super Bowl halftime show in this day and age: Be unforgettable, or be entirely forgettable.”

(I actually watched the halftime show this year, my veto overruled by everyone else in our house. The headliner was (do a Google search) Usher. A young woman walked onstage and strummed an unplugged guitar; Alicia Keys played a piano that looked like a red plastic anvil. The production standards were a Vegas stage show on a military scale. It was alternately cacophonous and torpid, which was appropriate, I suppose.)

There’s no way you can say that any single televised spectacle actually unites a population, inasmuch as the appeal of even the most mainstream event barely draws in a large minority. This year’s Super Bowl was still only watched by a third of Americans. Hollywood is detested by everyone from hardcore cineastes to social conservatives; whether it’s trending populist or “woke” it only converts a tiny fringe from either side.

And the Super Bowl will always be a tempting target for anyone looking to enhance their opinion of the U.S. in extra bombast, like political consultant and writer Michael Meurer, founder of Reimagining Politics, who wrote on his Medium site four years ago how that year’s Super Bowl was “the triumph of the imperial ethos in 21st century America, where an orgy of self-indulgence is now a permanent feature of the Imperium … The entire star-spangled fandango, with F-35 and F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets flying overhead, is fueled by an unquestioning embrace of consumerism packaged in the idiom of pop culture and celebrity fetishism.”

This kind of chest-beating masquerading as commentary only appeals to whoever shares the writer’s particular convictions and does nothing to inspire an “a-ha” moment in any fan heading to the kitchen during the half time show, as they wonder what was wrong with letting marching bands and cheerleaders take the field while coaches tweaked their mid-game strategy.

There’s a critical point overlooked in these discussions, which is that even the most popular media event is only witnessed by a minority of the population; if you don’t care, you’re in the majority, and being forced to have an opinion about the event is an example of the worst aspect of a democracy: how vocal minorities set agendas despite their relative insignificance.

Culture writer Nathan Rabin wrote in an essay two years go that he surprised himself in mid-life when he realized he was indifferent to both the Oscars and the Super Bowl, and that this would have shocked and dismayed his younger, sports-and-movie-obsessed self.

“Not caring about the Super Bowl or the Oscars as a 42-year-old dad, husband, and small business owner just means that things that interested me before don’t interest me anymore,” he wrote, adding that “I would like to state right here that not giving a (expletive) about The Super Bowl or The Oscars does not make me special. It doesn’t mean that I am too cool and hip and different to care about the things people are expected to care about.”

Alyssa Rosenberg in the Post admitted that she was wrong when, in a 2014 article, she was optimistic that “the present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win,” since the profusion of media would create fertile niches for every taste and interest. “What a fool I was.”

What has happened instead is increasing fragmenting of pop culture; there are more choices but “we have more opportunities to be wildly aggrieved, sometimes on no evidence at all.” But it seems to me that her longing for a major cultural event like the Super Bowl or the Oscars to bring us all together seems misplaced, since it lacks precedent, at least in a healthy society.

Everyone reading this has felt that mainstream culture has, sometimes or often, acted as if it was intent on not just excluding them but actively insulting or even demonizing their tastes and beliefs. This is in the nature of commercial entertainment in a pluralistic society; the only way to force a whole population to openly embrace a spectacle as the embodiment of their ideals is through fear and by limiting options severely, as every totalitarian society has proved.

Which is why it’s okay to love professional sports but ignore the Super Bowl. Or love movies but go out of your way to avoid the Oscars. It’s not that popular culture hates you, but that it’s wholly indifferent to what you think, feel, or like, and those moments when your interests overlap are accidents – lucky or not.

The worst kind of relationship is the one where we crave affirmation from people who don’t know we exist, whether they’re athletes or celebrities (or politicians, I feel obliged to add). And no matter what anyone says, a fandom is not a community, and a social network only gives strangers opportunities to insult you without knowing your name.

One of the benefits of living in a relatively peaceful, prosperous society is how a shrug can be a powerful gesture – the beginning of a purposeful disengagement that lets us move from beneath the shadow of spectacles to find the intimate places where our tastes, beliefs (and humanity) are recognized. There are no commercials or acceptance speeches there, but you can still get chips and seven-layer dip.