Are the Oscars Really Longer Every Year? Nope, Not Since 2002.

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 24 2012 6:08 PM

Are the Oscars Really Longer Every Year?

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Billy Crystal at the 83rd Academy Awards.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Academy Awards telecast on Sunday night may (or may not) pack a few surprises, but one sure bet is that it will run long—and somebody (probably host Billy Crystal) will crack a joke about it. Indeed, the idea that the Oscars run longer and longer every year has become such a cliché that joking about it has become a tradition in itself. In 1979, host Johnny Carson quipped, “It’s two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over a four hour show”; last year, while introducing a tribute to 18-time Oscar host Bob Hope, Crystal jested, “Some things never change. The producers have asked me to tell you we are running a little long, so here are the nominees for Best Picture." When it comes to the Oscars, the show must go on, and on, and on.

But are the Oscars really longer every year? Not since 2002. Before the telecast began Hollywood’s biggest night routinely ran over three hours, ending as late as 2 a.m. However, when the Oscars were first broadcast in 1953, the show clocked in at under two hours—and throughout the decade it stayed within trim two-hour blocks. That first year, NBC even reportedly cut off the presentation of the Irving Thalberg to Hollywood legend Cecil B. DeMille, in order to not run into the following program—while in 1959 the show ended early, leaving co-host Jerry Lewis to fill the remaining 20 minutes. However, the 1960s began with the ceremony running over the two-hour mark for the first time, and it would break the three-hour mark in 1974.

In the 1980s and 1990s the kudo-fest really began to bloat. Every single broadcast ran over three hours, with three and a half hours becoming the new norm. The show hit a new low when it broke four hours in 1998, ran at 4 hours and 9 minutes the following year, and then set the record for its current all-time longest show with a whopping 4 hour and 23 minute broadcast of the Whoopi-hosted 74th Academy Awards in 2002.

After facing harsh criticism for its repeated 4-hour shows, however, the academy has spent the last decade tightening its belt. It may have felt like last year’s show lasted a lifetime (the humdrum hosting Anne Hathaway and James Franco didn’t help), but it was actually the second shortest show since 1985, at a lean three hours and 17 minutes.

Runtimes reported by news sources are somewhat scant and occasionally inconsistent (Wikipedia’s chart is similarly incomplete—and occasionally inaccurate), so for official Oscar runtimes we went straight to the source. The Academy was kind enough to offer us the official lengths of each and every broadcast, down to the minute, and we’ve presented the data below in a handy chart. If current trends continue, Sunday’s show is likely to run around 210 minutes. If that sounds long, just remember that it used to be worse.

Oscar Length by Year

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Dan Kois, Troy Patterson and Dana Stevens will be on Slate’s Facebook page at 11 a.m. EST on Monday to chat with readers about Sunday’s Oscar ceremony.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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