Ratings for this year's awards shows have so far made for uncomfortable reading for the US TV networks. The Golden Globes pulled in only 6.9 million viewers this month – a 63 per cent drop from the 18.3 million who watched last year, which itself was an eight-year low for the traditional Oscars curtain-raiser, according to market research company Nielsen.
The Globes, it must be said, was a technical disaster. Taking place remotely, from the very first prize, things went awry. Best Supporting Actor Daniel Kaluuya's acceptance speech was inaudible, and the glitches continued.
That technical nightmare may have lost viewers, but the same cannot be said for the Grammys. It minimised Zoom interaction in favour of performances from some of music's biggest names, including Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish. There was critical praise, but Nielsen reported that viewership still slumped by 51 per cent from last year to 9.2 million, the show's lowest ever.
The Oscars team must be nervous ahead of the ceremony this month. Viewership for last year's telecast already hit an all-time low of 23.6 million, as recorded by Nielsen's Live+Same Day Fast National ratings, continuing a downward trend that has resulted in audiences slipping from 40 million pre-2015.
Are TV ratings dropping because of the pandemic?
The networks have been quick to blame the pandemic, and they do have a point. There have been no blockbuster movies or touring musicians, no office water-cooler moments to discuss the latest must-see, and with no red carpets, the shows are undoubtedly less appealing than in previous years.
This is not a new trend, though – all the major awards’ ratings have been declining for at least half a decade. The pandemic may have hastened the process, but it certainly did not create it.
Social media has also played a part. There was a time when these events were the only chance for fans to see all their favourite A-listers in one place, and the opportunity to check out their fashion choices on the red carpet was almost as appealing as the glitzy ceremonies awards themselves. Now people simply log on to Instagram or Twitter for live updates on who won what, clips of their favourite celebrities, and the best, curated viral posts. The need to commit to a three-hour-plus TV marathon now seems like ancient history.
This links in with changing audience demographics, too. Variety magazine reported that last year, the median viewer age for the big four ceremonies – the Oscars, Emmys, Globes and Grammys – passed 50 for the first time. Among the 18 to 49 demographic (the most regular social media users), Nielsen's data shows that the Globes suffered a 68 per cent fall this year.
Too many shows that are simply too long
Awards shows may be feeling the pressure now, but historically they've been ratings gold, such as in 1998 when more than 55 million people watched Titanic pick up 11 Oscars. Networks saw awards shows as easy winners, but oversupply could now be biting back. As well as the big four, US audiences have the Tony Awards, Country Music Association Awards, Billboard Music Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, and many more, mostly screening within a few weeks of each other. It's simply too much.
As well as the sheer volume, each show is long – really long. Last year's Oscars clocked in at three hours and 36 minutes, much of it dedicated to prizes of little interest to those outside the industry or celebrating films such as Parasite and JoJo Rabbit, which, although great movies, hadn't really resonated at the mainstream box office.
The rambling acceptance speeches don't help, either. For many they're simply irritating, but for others they're like holding up a red rag to a bull. Whether it's Joaquin Phoenix advocating for veganism or Rami Malek speaking up for immigrants, a 2017 survey by the US National Research Group revealed that 68 per cent of Trump voters disliked political speeches at the Oscars, while 66 per cent simply switched off the TV in response. That's a huge proportion of your audience to actively alienate, however worthy the cause.
How streaming platforms factor in
The growth of streaming, meanwhile, has changed the industry landscape. Ricky Gervais quipped while hosting the 2020 Globes that "no one watches network TV anymore". He wasn't entirely wrong. Nielsen found that from 2014 to 2019, primetime audience numbers for major US networks dropped by 20 per cent.
Over the same period, the number of US households with a subscription to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Hulu shot up significantly from less than half to more than three quarters.
Streaming platforms have also instilled an expectation among audiences that content is there whenever we want it. The idea of setting three hours aside at a specific time for live TV is almost alien to younger viewers who are accustomed to bingeing an entire series when they have the time, but pausing and doing something else when they don't.
Streaming has further led to a huge increase in the amount of content available. In 2010, a total of 216 scripted TV shows were available for Emmy consideration, said FX Networks chairman John Landgraf, last year. By 2019, that figure had surged to 532. Audiences simply can't watch everything, and if you haven't seen half of the movies or shows that are up for an award, you're less inclined to take an interest.
So will awards shows go away?
It's not all bad news. Even with reduced audiences, the biggest awards still rank among the most-watched shows on TV. Nielsen's data shows that last year's Oscars was the second-highest-rated entertainment show of 2020, behind the post-Super Bowl premiere of The Masked Singer, and was the eighth most-viewed show overall. The Grammys and Globes made the top 20, too.
We won't see awards shows disappear, but we may see them somewhere new. Dick Clark Productions, the producer behind the Globes, is lobbying Disney to put this year's American Music Awards on ABC and Hulu, and NBC to simulcast the Billboard Music Awards on streaming platform Peacock.
If audiences are heading to streaming sites, logically, awards shows should, too. "It's not a creative or content issue," Dick Clark's president, Amy Thurlow, told Bloomberg in response to 2020 viewership numbers for the Globes. "It's a distribution issue."
Amazon has already stepped into live event TV with sports, including New York Yankees baseball and the English Premier League and Champions League football. If awards shows are next for streaming platforms, there could be many more uncomfortable viewing figures to come for traditional broadcasters.