By Dom Serafini
Today, the Academy Awards (a.k.a. the Oscars) are one of world television’s most popular live events and, outside major sporting events, likely the greatest show on earth. But this wasn’t always the case: it took 61 years to reach the TV success the show has now. From its first U.S. nationally televised awards in 1953 — 25 years after it was instituted in Hollywood by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — to today’s half billion worldwide viewers in 190 countries and territories, the golden statuette experienced its own drama just like the ones it honors. From controversies (like in 1993 when Richard Gere denounced China and at the time was told that he would not be invited again), to disappointments (in 1991 Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves), to shock (in 1974 a streaker ran across the stage), to disrespect (in 1973 Marlon Brando refused the Oscar), to indifference (in 1971 George C. Scott watched the Oscars at home instead of accepting the award).
Nonetheless, one region of the world where the Oscars telecast has been a national priority almost from the beginning is Latin America (LATAM). Reportedly, 34 percent of Latin Americans between the ages of 12 and 64 watch award shows regularly when they’re shown on television, with the largest group (43 percent) comprised of female viewers ages 18-24.
According to Telefilms’ Tomas Darcyl, one of the largest distributors of Hollywood movies in LATAM, “[Oscar] nominations and Academy Awards are [important] to Telefilms because they add not only viewers but also prestige to all our movies. We see that the growth of a film that is nominated or wins an award and is exhibited during the Oscars is similar in all Latin America.”
The importance of the Oscars in LATAM is also proven by the large number of Latin American countries that submitted entries for the 2014 foreign-language category: A total of 10, ranging from Mexico to Venezuela to Argentina.
Currently, eight award shows are all the rage in LATAM, including the Oscars and local equivalents like the Argentine Film Critics Association Awards, Mexico’s ARIEL’s Awards and the Latin Grammys. In terms of geographic areas, popularity peaks in Venezuela, with 40 percent of viewers tuning in, followed by Mexico and Brazil with 34 percent each. Unfortunately, in Venezuela, the country that most enjoys the Oscars, the 2014 Awards weren’t broadcast on FTA, but on cable, courtesy of TNT.
Interestingly, this year the Oscars awarded more LATAM talents than ever before with Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron and Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki honored for Gravity and Mexican-born Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o awarded Best Actress in a Supporting Role for 12 Years a Slave.
Not that, in the past, LATAM talent was scarce — recall U.S. stars like Bolivian Raquel Welch, Puerto Ricans Jose Ferrer, Rita Moreno and Benicio del Toro; Mexicans Ricardo Montalban, Anthony Quinn, Edward James Olmos and Salma Hayek, and, from Cuba, Andy Garcia. Since the first Oscars telecasts in LATAM, the statuettes have been awarded to 20 Latin Americans.
Recalling the history of the Oscars’ international telecasts is not easy because, like much historical data concerning international distribution, the records were lost or never kept. What is known is that from that first broadcast, it took 13 years, until 1966, before the show was telecast in color and three more years before it was broadcast in a few more countries outside Canada and Mexico. In 1953, the 25th annual Academy Awards ceremony was broadcast live nationally in the U.S. and Canada on NBC, while in Mexico it was telecast the following night on Mexico City’s XHGC-TV (now part of Televisa’s TV networks) via kinescope: film from a movie camera mounted in front of a TV monitor, that NBC uniquely called “kine-photo.” At that time this extra coverage was called, “extending the network.”
According to the presenter of the 26th Awards, the show was also broadcast via kinescope in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, possibly on the station owned by Brazilian publisher and TV pioneer Assis Chateaubriand, who was a friend of David Sarnoff, president of RCA, parent company of NBC, from whom he purchased the transmitting equipment. But it wasn’t until 1970 that Mexico and Brazil could air the live broadcast of the 42nd Awards.
The origin of the Oscars is as colorful as its telecast and dramatic as the films it celebrates. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was organized in 1927 by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and other U.S. studio heads, originally to mediate labor disputes. At that time the below-the-line workers made IATSE the strongest union, which first fell into the hands of racketeers and, later, into those of the mob, which promptly began blackmailing the studios (events recalled in many Hollywood movies, including The Godfather). However, the studios did not always support the Oscars, like in 1953 when three of the film studios refused financial support, forcing the Academy to look to RCA for sponsorship in exchange for national broadcast rights over its NBC radio and TV networks.
The first “Academy Awards of Merit” (the Oscars’ official name) were bestowed in Hollywood in 1929 for the best movies of 1927 and 1928 in 12 categories (for a total of 15 Oscar statuettes).
No one really knows how the Oscar statuettes got their name. One story is that in 1931 then-Academy director Margaret Herrick looked at the statuette and commented, “it looks just like my Uncle Oscar!” Another story is that Bette Davis named it after her ex-husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, Jr. The moniker was picked up by gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky, who used it in one of his articles. However, the Academy officially acknowledged the name “Oscar” for the statuette only in 1939.
Reportedly, the model for the 1928 Oscar statuette, by sculptor George Stanley, was Mexican film director and actor Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, who had been recommended for the job by Mexican actor Dolores del Rio, who was married to MGM’s art director and one of the original Academy members, Cedric Gibbons (though this has not been confirmed by the Academy).
The first national U.S. broadcast in 1953 (previously the Awards were broadcast only on local Los Angeles TV stations and on national radio and hosted by comedian Bob Hope) was on NBC and continued on that network until 1960. From 1961 to 1970, the Oscars telecast moved to ABC, returning to NBC during the period of 1971-1975. In 1976 it went back to ABC with a contract that was extended to 2020. Throughout the years, the telecast was known as “The Academy Awards Show,” and since 2013, simply as “The Oscars.”
VideoAge found one of the first accounts of the international sales of the Oscars in an ad in the September 1979 Issue of Television/Radio Age, by ABC Pictures International, to license “The 52nd Annual Academy Awards, scheduled for ABC Telecast April 14, 1980 [and] available live by satellite or film or videotape within 36 hours.”
As previously mentioned, the first Oscars broadcast in LATAM was reported in 1953 on Mexico’s XHGC-TV. Brazil followed in 1954 and Colombia in 1981 on RCN. However, LATAM’s active involvement with the Academy Awards began in 1948, when Argentina’s Dios se lo pague was given an honorary prize, before the Best Foreign Language Film Award was established in 1956. Argentina has submitted works for the Best Foreign Film since 1961, followed by Peru in 1967 and Venezuela in 1978.
While on NBC, the Oscars’ international TV rights were handled by California National Productions, an NBC division created in 1953 that worked closely with NBC and parent company RCA, which later became NBC Films. While on ABC, the international rights were sold by ABC Film, a division established in 1954 that in 1972 became ABC Pictures International. By 1970 the Oscars telecast was licensed in 50 countries and 76 in 1984. By then ABC was sending two satellite feeds internationally: one for live broadcast (which could not be modified by the licensee) and, the next day, a 90-minute edited version. In both cases the licensees were allowed (and still are) to include voiceovers in either Spanish or Portuguese.
Marcel Vinay Sr. (currently a senior executive at Azteca) remembers acquiring live broadcast rights for Televisa in 1982, and according to Manuel Fraiz Grijalba, it reached Venezuela on his station, Venevision, in 1985. At that time, to alleviate collection problems, ABC Pictures International started to sub-license the Academy Awards show and for five years, starting in 1990, the Oscars telecasts were distributed by Pedro Leda in Argentina, while in Brazil they were handled by agent Herbert Richers.
By 1996, when Disney bought ABC, the studio began to license the Academy Awards directly to TV networks worldwide under their Buena Vista International Television banner, by combining the ABC and Buena Vista distribution stream under one company.
In January 2001 it was announced that Walt Disney TV International-Latin America distributed the Academy Awards to Latin America under Fernando Barbosa’s sales team.
In 2007 the distributor was rebranded as Disney–ABC International Television and in 2011 was renamed Disney Media Distribution (DMD). Today, the LATAM division of DMD, Disney Media Networks Latin America (or DMNLA), licenses the Oscars to all LATAM territories.
The Oscars were always very important to LATAM broadcasters because they were transmitted in the same time zone as the U.S., and thus aired live. The arrival of the pay-TV movie channels in LATAM boosted demand for the Academy Awards, and in some territories, the live event moved away from free TV.
In the U.S., the three-and-a-half-hour 2014 awards show was a success with advertisers as well, who paid a record $1.8 million for a 30-second commercial spot (a nine percent increase over last year). In 2011, when the most recent records are available, the Oscars generated $90 million for the Academy, mostly paid by ABC (for rights to the telecast) and Disney Media Distribution for international sales to some 190 countries and territories around the world, generating audiences estimated on par with the recent Summer Olympics Closing Ceremonies (778 million) and the World Cup finals (638 million).