An hour into the telecast of the 82nd Academy Awards Sunday night, you couldn't help but hope that somewhere backstage someone was waving a script and yelling: "Tempo, people, tempo."
Despite everyone's best efforts, this year's Oscars seemed to suffer from a crisis of confidence. Although studded with entertaining and emotional moments, it just never seemed to get going.
Still, early numbers Monday showed a big ratings jump from recent years, though the company that released the numbers, Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, conceded that current comparisons may not be entirely accurate.
Disney said the telecast on ABC scored a 26.5 household rating and 40 share in 56 key markets. The household rating, which measures the percentage of all homes watching the Oscars, appears to be up sharply from the 20.6 reported last year. And the 40 share, or the percentage of all TVs turned on that are tuned to the broadcast, compares with 31 last year.
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The show's pacing problem began almost immediately. Although we knew going in there would be two hosts, we weren't prepared for three openers: An introductory tableau of the lead actor and actress nominees was followed by a lamentable song-and-dance number by Neil Patrick Harris. Then hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin descended from the sky to warm up the audience with a little insider teasing.
The two were, as expected, the best hosts the show has had in years. Martin could have been in his living room and Baldwin, who at first seemed a bit nervous, calmed down the minute his first big line landed: "That cutaway of James Cameron just earned $3 million."
There was a lot of incremental dead air, and not just during Jeff Bridges' acceptance speech. It's a big stage and we seemed to spend a lot of time looking at it empty. Presenters took a long time to enter and exit, and there seemed to be a rule against this happening simultaneously.
For the most part, producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic delivered on their promise to deliver a more youthful and streamlined Oscars. With the exception of Ben Stiller presenting the award for best makeup in full Na'vi, down to the tail, the show was remarkably uncluttered, free of pre-taped segments and nonsequitur skits.
As for dragging young eyes to the screen, teens and tweens got a fun tribute to horror and presenters so young that several of them haven't quite learned the importance of good posture, particularly at the Academy Awards (Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart, I'm talking to you).
For the 40-somethings, there was a lovely John Hughes memorial, in which we were reminded how young we, and James Spader, once were (although the omission of Farrah Fawcett from the list of those who died this last year was particularly glaring).
As always, the last half-hour of the show seemed to move the fastest, with the big awards, and surprises, occurring one after the other. (What Barbra Streisand would have said if Kathryn Bigelow had not won the director award is something only Streisand knows.)
But even then, pacing was an issue — Tom Hanks announced the best picture winner so abruptly that it took a few seconds for even those who made "The Hurt Locker" to realize they had won.