Live events like awards shows were supposed to be what saves broadcast TV. But even while they’re stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic, viewers have lost interest in kudocasts — and the ratings declines this year don’t bode well for the future of the form.
The recent performance of the Golden Globes, Grammys and SAG Awards should make the producers of this month’s Oscars nervous. So far this year, year-to-year viewership for The CW’s Critics Choice Awards dropped 69%; NBC’s Golden Globes ceremony was down 62%; TNT and TBS’ simulcast of the SAG Awards dipped 52%; and CBS’ Grammys telecast fell 51%.
Last year’s Academy Awards, in which “Parasite” took best picture, averaged 23.6 million viewers — making it the lowest-watched on record. If this year’s trend continues, a 50% drop would bring it down to the shockingly low level of around 12 million.
The all-time peak remains 57.2 million in the “Titanic” year of 1998, but it was just a decade ago that the Oscars was on an upward swing. The show went from 37.9 million in 2011 (“The King’s Speech”) to 39.3 million in 2012 (“The Artist”), 40.3 million in 2013 (“Argo”) and 43.7 million in 2014 (“12 Years a Slave”).
But then the real slide began. It’s probably no coincidence that the streaming revolution began in earnest at this same exact time, and the steady trickle of broadcast and cable ratings erosion turned into a flood. Nothing’s immune to it, even the Super Bowl, which dipped below 100 million viewers this year. The Oscars has long been considered the “Super Bowl” of the entertainment world, but now that fair-weather awards viewers have plenty of other choices at their fingertips, and know they can catch Oscar highlights online, they’ve left — and it’s unclear if they’ll ever return.
The COVID-19 pandemic just hastened that change this year. First of all, it impacted the normal dates for this winter’s awards shows, blunting audience awareness of when the kudocasts were ultimately held. There also wasn’t the usual ancillary events around the ceremonies, further tempering the buzz. And although a handful of winners appeared in person at the Grammys, the nature of virtual attendees on the Globes and SAG Awards meant awkward remote appearances in a time of serious Zoom fatigue.
The Oscars will at least boast more star power, as nominees attend in person, and there will be the curiosity factor in how producers pull off a show split between Union Station and the Kodak Theatre. For the third year in a row, there’s no announced host — a gambit that worked in 2019, but didn’t play as well in 2020.
Walt Disney TV’s Rob Mills, executive VP of unscripted and alternative entertainment, notes that Oscar producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins are prepping this year’s show “under the most unique circumstances, and rising to the occasion to bring a celebration of film to our industry colleagues and viewers at home. This year’s Oscars will surely be unlike any other telecast ever before, with moments of much-needed laughter, joy and surprise – those unforgettable moments will be the true legacy of this show.”
But Linda Ong, CEO of branding and media strategy firm Cultique, warns that the Oscars may nonetheless face the same challenges the Globes, Grammys and SAG already encountered this year.
“There’s this assumption that because it’s the Oscars everyone will show up,” she says. “But, increasingly viewers, they don’t know any of the films, they don’t know the stars, and there’s really less and less reason for them to watch. I think coming out of the pandemic, these award shows really need to think about what is their reason for being, what is their audience value proposition. Unless the industry can figure out what the consumer angle of the awards show itself is, it’s going to be difficult. We’re just going to continue to see this decline.”
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