There's a week to go, but this year's Oscars have already spawned their first major celebrity hissy-fit. Peter Gabriel, the laid-back king of progressive rock, has abruptly withdrawn from next Sunday's awards show after his performance there was shortened to just 65 seconds.
The former Genesis singer had expected, in keeping with tradition, to have several minutes in the spotlight to perform his song "Down to Earth". Composed by Gabriel for the computer-animated film Wall-E, it is shortlisted for an Academy Award in the best original song category.
But in an attempt to revitalise ratings, the event's organisers decided to jazz up this year's ceremony by blending all three of the nominated tracks together in a short, sharp medley.
As a result, Gabriel announced yesterday that he was refusing to participate. He said in a video posted on his website: "Songwriters, even though they're a small part of the whole film-making process, we still work bloody hard, and I think deserve a place in the ceremony. So I think ... I'm an old fart and it's not going to do me a lot of harm to make a little protest. For some of the other artists, it wouldn't be so easy."
Gabriel, who turned 59 yesterday, said he hoped the Soweto Gospel Choir would be able to perform in his place. He promised that he'd still be attending the ceremony, though his comments will hardly endear him to the Academy's 4,000-odd voting members. The decision to cut Gabriel's performance was made by producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon, who have been brought in to reinvigorate the three-and-a-half-hour Oscar ceremony in an effort to reverse a steep decline in its viewing figures.
"We'd assumed the three nominees, a bit like last time, or in fact every time, you would get their [entire] songs performed," explained Gabriel.
"I think audience figures were falling off, and one of the things they've decided to cut are the songs."
The Academy failed to comment on Gabriel's withdrawal yesterday. The medley is not the only innovation in next Sunday's ceremony which may cause controversy. The producers have already ditched their usual roster of US comedians in order to employ the Australian actor Hugh Jackman as the event's host. And, in an effort to create greater suspense around the ceremony, none of the stars who have been booked to present the awards will be announced until the night itself.
Presenters have also been asked to sneak into the event through a back door of the Kodak Theatre, rather than taking the traditional route in via the red carpet, in the hope that TV viewers will stay tuned to discover what outfits major Hollywood stars are wearing at the ceremony.
Regardless of whether the innovations work, there is consensus that the Oscars needs a facelift. The event, which drew 50 million viewers in the 1990s, hit an all-time low last year with a US audience of just 32 million. Though it remains one of America's most-watched network TV shows, other nations have recently relegated it to satellite channels. In the UK, it will be broadcast on Sky Movies HD.