The Academy Bets on James Franco and Anne Hathaway

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is departing from tradition: it picked Anne Hathaway and James Franco to host the 2011 Oscars. What happened to the precedent of casting middle-aged comedians like Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Hugh Jackman (he's 42) to yuk it up and make references to Broadway? Neither Hathaway nor Franco are comedians, and their combined age (60) is five years less than Steve Martin.

Oscar Awards
Oscar Awards

A departure, to say the least.

But this makes perfect sense considering the Academy's push to boost their viewership numbers and lower the average age.

It all comes down to add prices for the big event, which are second only to the Super Bowl, as much as $1.4 million for a 30 second spot, making it a gold mine for Disney's ABC.

This follows a long series of decisions designed to juice youthful interest.

The Academy doubled the number of "Best Picture" nominations to increase the chances that a blockbuster like Warner Brothers "Dark Knight" would be included, and drive viewers. It worked to the extent that "Avatar" and "District 9" were included in the Best Picture category. It failed in that a niche film that just a fraction Avatar's audience say, "The Hurt Locker," won the top honor and 'Best Director.'

That's not all — last year the Academy enlisted teen idols like "Twilight's" Kristen Stewart and Disney's Miley Cyrus to present awards. (How could the Academy not recognize that demographic's power after the success of the "Twilight" series?). The Academy also paired up Steve Martin with Alec Baldwin as co-hosts, another attempt aimed at a broader and more diverse audience.

Last year's efforts made some progress — the Awards Show drew 41.3 million viewers, that's the best performance in five years and 14 percent higher than the prior year. The show delivered a 13.1 rating among 18 to 49 year-olds. But the numbers get more interesting if you dig deeper: while the 34 to 49 was up 9 percent, the 18 to 35 year-old demographic was down 3 percent from the prior year. That means those valuable 20-somethings were greatly under-served. We'll see if having hosts smack-dab in the middle of that age range reverses that decline.

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