Though industry voters didn’t exactly champion The Social Network at last night’s Academy Awards — the critically-adored film lost in five of its eight categories, including Best Director and Best Picture — the Academy certainly embraced social media in its bid to earn younger viewers. The telecast itself poked fun at technology throughout its three hours of airtime, as Justin Timberlake used an iPhone app to change onstage scenery and Sandra Bullock teased Jesse Eisenberg, nominated for his portrayal of Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg, for not friending her online. But ultimately, the undercurrent of social media savvy at this year’s Oscars was no joke: paidContent.org, a news outlet for digital ingenuity, highlighted the All Access and Backstage Pass features on Oscar.com and suggested that the website “should have won Best Supporting Actor.” (All Access, for $4.99, gave subscribers a multi-camera feed from the first arrival on the red carpet to the last departure; Backstage Pass, for just 99 cents, broadcast from behind the curtain during the show. Both were available on any device with web connection.)
Besides those features, presented yesterday for the first time in Oscar history, the Academy ran an advertising blitz both online and off to intensify interest in its uniquely-formatted 83rd edition, the first ever to feature two young actors — James Franco and Anne Hathaway — as hosts. The most traditional frontier was television: last Wednesday, Franco appeared on the game show Minute to Win It alongside Aron Ralston, the mountain climber he plays in 127 Hours; on Oscar eve, meanwhile, a Hathaway-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live reran on NBC. Earlier in the week, Franco joined both Twitter and Facebook to communicate directly with fans in anticipation of his hosting debut. And together with Hathaway, he leaked a teaser video in the style of the immortal Grease franchise (see below) to various blogs and news sites frequented by the younger demographic.
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJKSWh5zxVA&feature=player_embedded]Many see this year’s social media surge as an obvious response to the Golden Globes, the Oscar precursor that achieved an online presence with finesse on its way to 17 million U.S. viewers during its January broadcast. According to the L.A. Times, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — which curates the Globes — made significant waves in the social web space leading up to its show: the HFPA reached 40 million Twitter accounts and created 730 million impressions using click-through ads; it attracted 144,000 new fans to its Facebook page in the course of just two months; and its gift bag sweepstakes, which auctioned off more than $3,000 in prizes, generated some 10,000 entries. While the Academy mostly chose to highlight the “real-time” benefits of social media use — the ability to go behind the scenes as the Oscars were happening, that is — instead of using lead-in sweepstakes and online events to build buzz, it nevertheless courted internet users with new-found fervor for this year’s ceremony.
Whether the efforts paid off, however, remains to be seen. Initial reports suggest that the “Franco and Hathaway” Oscars lost steam in terms of viewership from last year’s broadcast, which, to be fair, was the highest-rated show (drawing 41.3 million viewers) in six years; initial reviews, meanwhile, have been even less kind. “[Nothing could] save what was — by all accounts — the worst Oscar telecast of all time,” reads one. Others question why Franco (shown above in drag) looked distracted — some going so far as to suggest he was stoned — and the Toronto Star called the whole thing “an incredibly awkward evening.” We’ll have to wait for the official numbers to determine whether awkwardness, aloofness and mediocrity are detrimental to television ratings. In the meantime, perhaps the lesson is this: while social media are essential routes to raising awareness about an event, the event itself must still be entertaining enough to merit the attention.