LOS ANGELES — On the 30th anniversary of the streaker incident at the 1974 Academy Awards, a five-second delay has been instituted for this Sunday’s Oscarcast, which could well result in the deep-sixing of something similarly spontaneous and memorable.
Are you old enough to remember that fateful night? A naked 33-year-old man named Robert Opal streaked briefly into view, flashing a peace sign, as NBC cameras cut away to avoid a full frontal assault, as it were. In a truly inspired bit of ad-libbing, the ever-poised David Niven — standing on stage to present an award — deadpanned, “The only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping ... and showing his shortcomings.”
One can’t help but recognize the parallels between that and the Janet Jackson bare breast fiasco. In both cases, we had a moment of human uncovering that couldn’t have been anticipated by the host network. And yet I don’t recall any outcry at the time about the immoral horrors of such an impulsive display.
In the streaker’s wake, it wasn’t seen as necessary to institute a delay lest the full monty become an annual Oscar event. Of course, it was also a very different political time. Watergate was raging, and the president was more concerned with his own political survival than with a little flesh flash on the airwaves.
Is the delay censorship?
But it need be remembered on this Oscar eve that the Academy Awards are a very different beast. They are the closest thing the entertainment industry has to a sacred public trust. You tamper with them at your peril.
It’s a fact that greatly concerns Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president Frank Pierson, who initially responded to ABC’s announcement of a five-second delay with the charge that it “introduces a form of censorship.”
Reached last week to elaborate in a telephone interview, Pierson explained, “The fact is, this is no longer a live show; it’s delayed. Whether you’re talking about the Oscars or a live news broadcast, one of the reasons people tune in to them is for the unexpected, the outrageous, things they can talk about the next day.”
Yet we’re only talking five measly seconds here — right?
“That’s not the point,” Pierson assured. “It’s that suddenly the government’s influence is dictating the telecast of an awards show. If you leave out or black out little events like the streaker incident in ’74, we all wind up losing.”
And indeed, it’s just such an occurrence that the delay is designed to guard against. It is purportedly instituted to protect viewers from the so-called seven dirty words or any form of what’s considered indecent exposure. It is apparently not designed to stifle political speech — itself a longtime Oscar tradition.
Political views won't be edited out
Pierson’s understanding is that the delay won’t result in the erasure of, say, a rant along the lines of what Michael Moore did at last year’s show.
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“Anyone who decides to use their 45 seconds in such a public forum to espouse a political view has that right,” Pierson believes. “We got a lot of negative mail last year about Moore. What he said may have offended a lot of people. It may have been inappropriate, in bad taste and dumb. But it’s he who suffers the slings and arrows.
“I mean, if you eliminate from television anything that offends anybody, what’s left to watch?”
What, indeed. To Pierson’s mind, it’s all about taking responsibility.
“If people don’t want to take a chance on their kids seeing something objectionable, they simply shouldn’t watch the show,” he notes. “Being responsible starts in your own home.”
But thanks to the delay, parents need not be overly concerned. If a running man without clothing should suddenly emerge onstage Sunday night, he will magically disappear.
Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter