During good times or bad Ñ war or peace Ñ there's one thing we can always count on: The Academy Awards telecast will drone on for more than four hours, and many of us will nod off well before the Barbara Walters special that follows.

But this is the 21st century. It's the age of the Internet, of Napster and all kinds of instantly delivered video gratification. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions about how to speed up the Oscars while still maintaining the essence of the evening.

That essence, need I remind you, is pure suspense: Who will win? Who won't win? Who'll be escorting Anne Heche? And who will embarrass themselves through ill-conceived choices that lead to terrible ad-libs or frighteningly awful clothes?

These suggestions come with one more, often-overlooked idea in mind: Most of the entertainment should come from the stage, not the red carpet or interview room.

• With the exception of the musical numbers that are pretty much required if you're going to give out an award for best song, let's eliminate the dull and daffy production numbers. Nobody wants to watch a stage choked with singers and dancers doing a musical tribute to 'About Schmidt,' or taking a winsome look back at 75 years of Oscar memories.

• You know there are going to be scripted references to the conflict in Iraq, as there should be. But keep it focused and relevant, not flowery and overdone.

• Because of security concerns, producer Gil Cates has decided to excise the red-carpet shots of stars arriving. That's just as well, because the segment adds little now that Joan Rivers has taken over the job of making fun of what Gwyneth Paltrow is wearing.

• Cates has also announced that he's put a five-name limit on the number of people Oscar winners can thank. Bad idea. Whether a winner should be cut off with the dreaded orchestra music leading into a commercial is a decision that should be made based on the speech's own merits. And Cates should be the one to call the shots. In the past, there have been some unusually long speeches that deserved to be long Ñ and others that obviously needed the hook after 30 seconds.

• No needless speeches from the president of the academy and other nonshowbiz types. Repeat after me: 'Nobody cares!'

• Give host Steve Martin free reign. Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg were given a lot more face time than Martin had the first time he was host two years ago. And Martin was fabulous.

• Warn everybody ahead of time that if they start getting political, they'll be fined $10,000 per second and suspended from their next movie.

• Put tight time constraints on all those movie-clip montages Ñ especially those honoring stars who have died in the past year.

• Do something Ñ anything Ñ so that categories such as best documentary or best sound editing make a little sense to the folks at home. Could you please give us some idea of what goes into becoming an Oscar-winning sound editor, as opposed to just being an average sound editor?

Pete Schulberg is the host of 'Portland's Morning News' on KPAM (860 AM). Contact him at [email protected]

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