Monday, January 20, 2014

And the Award for Most Controversial Election Goes To...

A slow news day can be a painful thing. On Thursday, January 16, it resulted in something very dangerous indeed: the baseball media commenting on the Oscar nominations, announced at 8:30 that morning. While I'm already not that curious what Dan Shaughnessy has to say about American Hustle, what actually happened was arguably worse: writers began to draw parallels between the Academy Award voting process and the Baseball Hall of Fame. A sampling:

A few weeks after the Hall of Fame election unleashed perhaps baseball's greatest internecine vitriol yet, some BBWAA members were clearly still smarting. The Hall election that they administer has come under attack for both its results and its process, and many voting members got defensive about it. What this Oscar comparison revealed is that they clearly think they are being singled out for criticism—with the implication that this is unfair. The BBWAA's sins are no worse than any other imperfect voting system, they believe, yet baseball's zealots attack them with unprecedented nastiness that's disproportional to the severity of the crime. Why can't we all just get along like those nice people in Hollywood?

It's hogwash. Because anyone who uses the Oscars—the Oscars–as an example in their argument that the Hall of Fame gets exposed to an undue amount of criticism is not a very close watcher of Hollywood's awards season.

The Oscars, of course, are second-guessed all the time—not just by fans, but by the media and blogosphere too. People are still fuming about Crash's defeat of Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture of 2005, and accusations of racism flew after Meryl Streep defeated Viola Davis for Best Actress just two ceremonies ago.

But that's just the results.

People in the Oscar-watching business have the same complaints about their voting process as baseball observers do about the BBWAA's. The difference has been—are you sitting down for this?—the Academy has actually listened and changed its voting process in response.

Probably the best example of this happened two years ago when controversy erupted over the Best Original Song category. Across all of 2011, the Academy's music branch found just two songs worthy of nominations, despite a long list of excellent qualifiers. Having just two nominees in a category and at an awards show more accustomed to five was an embarrassment for the Academy, and sharp criticism of the music branch's convoluted nomination system flew in from all sides. Within a few short months, the Academy announced that it would throw out the old process and switch to a simple new method: the five songs with the most votes would get nominations. It wasn't hard, and no one felt like it undermined tradition. The following year, Adele's "Skyfall" bested four other solid nominees in the category.

What's that? Best Original Song doesn't have the same prestige and tradition around it as, say, Best Picture? Well, the Academy has futzed with that award too—probably more than any other. Prior to the 2009 Oscars, the Academy stirred the pot by announcing it would double the number of Best Picture nominees—and change their method of choosing a winner from first-past-the-post to instant-runoff voting. The changes were a response to criticism that smaller, independent films with strong but not widespread followings were being crowded out of the Best Picture race by the Hillary Clintons and Mitt Romneys of the race that had the resources to compete. The Oscars had always been a competition with five contestants—not only for Best Picture, but to this day that remains the number of nominees in almost every Oscar category. Yet the Academy wasn't afraid to mess with tradition to make their process better.

Two years later, the Academy tweaked the process again based on feedback and perceived issues with the new Best Picture experiment. Currently, instead of forcing 10 Best Picture nominees in a year that might not merit it, the Oscars' nomination system is flexible enough to produce anywhere from five to 10 nominees. The modified instant-runoff voting system is complex but ingenious. Imagine that—a group always striving to improve its election process, even at the edges. The Academy has a very instructive lesson for the BBWAA here: if you change your process and don't like it, you're not stuck with it. Every change can be a learning experience, and you have as many tries as you need to get it right.

Finally, the Oscars are continually adding and reinventing categories as needed. The award for Best Makeup was created in 1981 as a direct result of the outcry over The Elephant Man's (1980) lack of recognition for what was obviously to so many an award-worthy makeup job. An award for Best Animated Feature was added for 2001 in order to address the Academy's longstanding anti-animation bias. Today, there are movements afoot to add categories such as Best Casting, to split categories such as Best Makeup and Hairstyling, and to combine categories such as Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.

So, no, the Hall of Fame is not the only non-political election that people complain about. Within the baseball universe, people hear incessant complaints about baseball's election process; in the blogosphere of Oscar watching, the chorus for change is equally loud. So it is within any industry, really—from similar crowd-pleasing rules changes at the Emmys to choosing the next monarch of England. The BBWAA simply thinks they're alone in receiving criticism because they're not plugged into any of these other circles. Maybe if they were, they'd learn a valuable lesson: other organizations bend under the weight of public pressure to improve—and almost none are worse off for doing so. If the BBWAA is upset because it feels like it is the only election that people hurl their invective at, maybe they should also consider that theirs is also the only election that refuses to evolve.

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