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Chuck Barney: Curious case of shrinking Oscars show

The Academy Awards are on Sunday night, but organizers seem to be doing everything they can to keep us from watching.

In fact, from the looks of things, it's as if Oscar has a death wish.

Have you seen the list of movies up for Best Picture honors? "The Dark Knight," a critically adored box-office sensation, isn't on it. Neither is the beloved "Wall-E." But something called "The Reader" is. Now, raise your hand if you saw "The Reader." Yeah, I didn't think so.

And check out the Best Song category: Missing in action are big names including Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen and Miley Cyrus, even though all three were nominated for Golden Globes (with Springsteen winning).

Alas, they got the cold shoulder from Oscar the grouch.

So what does the academy do to offset this glaring shortage of blockbuster films and megawatt star power?

Do they give us a hilarious, rock-our-world host who'd have us tumbling off the couch in mirth? Um, no.

They give us song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman, who was last seen (or not seen) in a stink bomb called "Australia." No worries, though. On Sunday night, Bravo is airing a few episodes of "The Real Housewives of Orange County."

But it really does make you wonder: Has Oscar entered into a secret suicide pact? Is it sowing the seeds of its own demise?

It wasn't all that long ago that the Academy Awards telecast was one of the biggest must-see television events of the year -- a shared cultural experience that ranked up there near the Super Bowl.

But ratings for the show have been on the wane for years and now Oscar is in danger of going from being a prized pedigree to a lowly slumdog.

Last February's telecast attracted the smallest audience -- 32 million -- on record.

The premiere of "American Idol" -- and even some NFL playoff games -- drew more viewers.

At this rate, it might not be long before frantic executives at ABC deploy a squadron of professional seat-fillers into the nation's living rooms.

Of course, the academy is hampered by some factors it can't control.

Considering the multitude of channels and our fragmented media landscape, the telecast is never going to regain the clout it had at its height -- when about 82 percent of the country watched in 1954.

Also, the academy is powerless to minimize the flood of celebrity-obsessed fare on the airwaves these days.

With the multitude of awards shows and "Entertainment Tonight"-like programs, we have movie stars parading off the red carpet and into our living rooms on a constant basis.

That can only diminish some of the glamour and the special aura of Oscar night.

But the academy is also its own worst enemy.

For years, critics and fans alike have bemoaned the show's sluggish pace and bloated sense of itself.

But I wish them the best of luck. Clearly, they're going to need it if they hope to return the golden glow to Oscar.

Reach Chuck Barney at cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com. He is television columnist for the Contra Costa Times.