Oscar could be checking in earlier.

The board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is considering pushing up Oscar ceremonies from mid-March to late February in hopes of goosing ratings, shortening the sometimes bitter Oscar campaigns and preempting the glut of competing award shows, Academy spokesperson John Pavlik confirmed Monday.

Pavlik says the Academy Awards would most likely move to the last Sunday in February, which would mean nominations--usually announced around Valentine's Day--would be pushed back by about a month to mid-January.

With next year's 75th Academy Awards already locked into March 23, any decision to move up the Oscarcast wouldn't occur until 2004 at the earliest.

"The driving force behind any move the board makes regarding the awards is always trying to figure out how to keep it at the forefront of people's attention," says Pavlik. "Moving it up might help make the movies fresher...and perhaps people will be a little more excited and tune in."

The household ratings for this year's 74th Academy Awards broadcast on ABC and hosted by Whoopi Goldberg hit an all-time low, prompting concerns among Academy members that the world's most glamorous shindig was becoming anticlimactic, being upstaged by upstart award shows now airing strategically before it.

There are the Golden Globes on NBC, the AFI Awards on CBS and Screen Actors Guild Awards on TNT, the Broadcast Film Critics Association's Critics' Choice Awards on E! and the Independent Spirit Awards on the Independent Film Channel, among others.

By moving to February, the Oscars would not only get a jump on some of those shows, but would also benefit by airing during sweeps, when more viewers are tuned in.

Additionally, the Academy has become increasingly concerned about the tenor of Oscar campaigns. Between December (the deadline for nominations) and the actual ceremony in March, studios and producers focus all their efforts on trying to sway Academy voters with a barrage of ads in the trades, free videocassettes of nominated films and other goodies.

But the Oscar horse race isn't limited to swag, nor is it always good-natured. In recent years, studios have begun whisper campaigns to discredit rivals. For example, this year's big winner, A Beautiful Mind, was dogged by allegations of glaring historical inaccuracies.

"The Academy is also hoping that [moving the date] might have some positive impact in reducing the amount of campaigning that goes on," says Pavlick:

Moving the Oscar date will require some logistic maneuvering. ABC will need to clear space in its sweeps schedule, and the Academy will need to make sure the venue, most likely the Kodak Theater, will be available.

But that's nothing compared to the likely resistence from studios. Oscar nominations mean bigger box office. For instance, Miramax's In the Bedroom made $15 million and Universal's A Beautiful Mind grossed $41 million between nominations in February and the awards in March. Studios execs would scream if the new date cut into their revenue. A few studios, however, suggest a shorter campaign window would cut down on costly Oscar promotion.

News of the possible Oscar move is already causing a ripple effect. The Directors Guild of America, which schedules its annual honors in March, has already reserved a date in February 2004 in case the switch is made, since its yearly pick for Best Director often influences Academy voters.

Other Oscar tuneups will likely follow, says Pavlick. "People will figure out ways to squeeze in front of us because it does make them anticlimactic," he adds.

If the board does decide to shift the Oscarcast, it wouldn't be the first time. The inaugural Academy Awards occurred in May 1929. By the 1960s, the Oscars were handed out in April. The March date was established in 1989, but the Academy moved the show from Monday nights to Sunday nights in 1999.

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