By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Now they know how big the show is and how much people care, but the producers of the Oscars aren't making any apologies for their maiden effort running Hollywood's biggest show last year or the provocative humor of its host, Seth MacFarlane.
Despite some harsh reviews from TV critics, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron pulled in the largest U.S. audience in three years, a ratings bump in the 18-49 demographic coveted by TV networks and, perhaps most importantly for them, a second chance to show what they could do.
"I would say this year we are undaunted," Meron told Reuters backstage at the Dolby Theatre from where ABC will broadcast the Academy Awards on Sunday. Last year, 40.3 million U.S. viewers tuned in to watch the film industry's top honors, a glamorous event broadcast to 200 countries.
For this year, the producers have teased a homage to movie heroes, like Erin Brockovich, Harry Potter and Nelson Mandela, and a heavy dose of hit Oscar-nominated songs by hot artists, including Pharrell Williams and U2. There will be surprises, they promise.
But the single biggest reason to tune in on Sunday in their minds? Ellen DeGeneres, comedian, day-time talk show maven and soon-to-be two-time Oscar host.
"She is funny and yet in her way she is very kind as well, and I think it's a great blend," said Meron.
"We are very proud of last year's show and we love Seth," Meron added. "Seth represents current comedy as does Ellen. They are both experts in the their field."
But Meron bristles at the notion that the 56-year-old DeGeneres is a safe choice, someone who won't offend like MacFarlane, the creator and star of TV series "Family Guy" who pushed boundaries with his risque jokes about female nudity and zingers about gays and Jews. The Los Angeles Times called the change in hosts from "naughty" to "nice."
"Ellen is a brilliant talent," said Meron, who with Zadan has produced Broadway shows and the film version of the musical "Chicago." "Brilliant talents, I don't think, are ever safe."
Unlike some of the other awards shows in town, like the Golden Globes which has Tina Fey and Amy Poehler locked in for three years, the Oscars are changing hosts every year. Before MacFarlane there was a return to tradition with nine-time host Billy Crystal after a widely panned appeal to youth with co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco.
Despite the rotation, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, says there is "absolutely no crisis" when in comes to picking Oscar hosts.
"We are very, very thrilled," she said. "Not only this year do I have the veterans of Craig and Neil, but also Ellen," who hosted Hollywood's biggest night for the first time in 2007.
Meron and Zadan inoculated themselves against criticism before they even took the job the first year and found solace in the fact that at least people talked about the show.
"In this age of social media, people love to start taking things apart, especially popular things," Meron said. "So thank God we were popular enough for people to start wanting to criticize it."
For the youth audience that was pulled in last year by MacFarlane and entertainers like Adele, Meron says they hope to bring it back with a combination of DeGeneres, tributes to superheroes and top musical acts, from the cool Karen O singing "The Moon Song" to the family friendly Idina Menzel belting out "Let It Go."
But then, there are those unscripted moments that no one plans for and that are the real reason people want to watch the show. There was Jennifer Lawrence tripping up the steps last year when she went to accept her best actress Oscar or Jack Palance doing one-arm push-ups at the age of 73 after winning his best supporting actor award in 1991.
"Those are the things that Gil Cates, who was our great predecessor and one of the greatest producers of the show, called Oscar gods and he wanted the Oscar gods to smile," said Meron.
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Cynthia Osterman)