On May 23, 2021, 2.33 million people tuned into the Billboard Music Awards. This is over 1.25 million fewer viewers than the 2020 show. A month earlier, the Academy Awards dropped by 58% when compared to 2020. In March 2021, the Grammy’s hit a historic low with only 7.88 million viewers.
These are just a few bullet points demonstrating the declining interest in award shows. While television ratings as a whole seem to be dropping, award shows have been disproportionally impacted. Viewers aren’t turning on the ceremonies, but networks still spend big money to bring in talent.
As a culture, this represents a shift. People used to rely on these shows as a summary of arts and media. The recognition of being nominated was an honor, and receiving an award could result in a huge sales boost. Now, people can get recommendations from other sources. Media is more accessible than ever, and traditional forms of media have less impact.
Numbers might be down, but award shows are still a staple of the TV lineup. They’re not likely to be leaving any time soon, but there will need to be some changes if they want people to care.
Not Just a Technology Change
As a whole, television has faced a change in viewership. Content can be streamed or recorded, and customers are cutting the cable in favor of cheaper options. There’s no doubt award shows have been impacted by the changes in technology, but this isn’t the only factor to consider.
Super Bowl 55 in 2021 was viewed by 91.6 million people, down from 100.45 million in 2020. The decline resulted in a loss of over 8% of viewers. Certainly noteworthy, but not nearly as severe as the award shows. Some award show audiences have been cut in half after trending negatively for years. There has to be a reason award shows have been hit harder.
Sometimes the explanation is a bit more simple. Viewers simply don’t like what they see.
Every year it seems some big names are omitted from award shows. Nominees don’t seem to reflect popular opinions and a lot of big names get snubbed. In 2021, The Weeknd was the most questionable omission. After his critical and commercial success with After Hours in 2020, he seemed like a guaranteed nominee. While The Recording Association empathized with his concerns, The Weeknd felt a lack of transparency in awarding polcies made the ceremonies less significant.
Often, the Album of the Year recipients only have slightly above average reviews. The most experimental albums, even if they are praised by listeners and critics, don’t get the recognition. The Grammys, like other award shows, seem to praise artists in a certain mold.
When it comes to sports, The Super Bowl is the biggest event on television. There’s a reason for there to be so much excitement surrounding the game. Football fans have watched all season as two successful teams earn the privilege to compete. Then we get a clash of the titans. The two biggest teams face off in a winner-takes-all game.
Award shows don’t work like this. Projects need to be nominated to be considered for an award. Among the nominees, one will be selected as the recipient. The winner is usually selected by a committee, not the public. This can be a blessing or a curse, but in many cases it becomes a game.
When it comes to the Academy Awards, we often see films labelled as “Oscar Bait.” While there’s no clear definition to the term, it’s generally used to describe movies that take a more introspective approach, focus on darker themes, or depict real-life trauma. Essentially, these films are traditionally artistic for the sake of being “art.”
Television can be Emmy-bating. Music can be Grammy-bating. For all I know, Millie Bobby Brown spent 2020 bating the Kids’ Choice Awards. Then, we see awards being given to projects that have less financial success but have a project that appeals to the award committee. Perhaps no artists exemplifies this better than Norah Jones, whose album sales soaredafter her successes at the 2003 Grammy Awards. At the Academy Awards, many movies see box office bumps after winning the Oscar for Best Picture. In 2017, Moonlight saw this happen. 2018 saw many movies receive financial expansions, such as the award winner The Shape of Water.
Perhaps this is a smart move for indie films. Even with declining viewership, The Academy Awards gets millions of views. For viewers, this can feel disingenuous, especially when they haven’t heard of any of the nominees.
A New Model of Success
While some elements of the award shows have changed, others remain the same. Dozens of celebrities collect under one roof and major performances highlight the evening. For the past few years some award shows have been highlighting their social media engagement. Perhaps one of the most notable social performers are the MTV Video Music Awards, a show known for its buzz-worthy celebrity moments.
This year, the Grammys boasted they had over 77 billion social media impressions. While they may be discussing an impressive statistic to diminish their loss in viewership, there’s also a lot of potential with social engagement. This can place award reveals in front of the eyes of millions and make performances more lucrative for performers. Ultimately, they want attention. Whether they get it on CBS or YouTube, the artist is still being recognized.
Network television would much rather have people tune into the live broadcast on their TVs. If the 2021 Grammy ratings are any indication, young adults don’t want to do that. Overall viewership was down, but the 18–49 demographic was hit the hardest. Not only is this their target demo, but is also indicative of future engagement. Losing younger viewers means they’re less likely to tune into future broadcasts.
Social media isn’t the ideal solution, but it might be the silver lining for artists. At least people are watching the performances and able to see award winners. The decline in television viewership might not be proportional to a decline in interest.
Are Award Shows Truly Dead?
Despite the declines, award shows remain some of the highest rated broadcasts for networks. Many of these accolades still hold prestige, and artists still want exposure. It seems unlikely that major award shows will be going away.
On the other side, smaller shows may not have the impact needed to survive. A Billboard Music Award isn’t as important as a Grammy, but artists still used the platform for exposure. With fewer people tuning into the event, there might not be a need for these ceremonies to consume TV time.
The impact of the award shows does seem to be dying. Social media might be a secondary form of exposure, but the lack of young people watching the ceremonies demonstrates a lack of caring. They know people like The Weeknd will get snubbed, but they don’t know the people who pick the award recipients. When an unknown project wins one of the big awards, younger viewers aren’t going to be that interested.
Perhaps the award shows have become too systematic. Artists create an artsy project, design it to fit the award committee’s mold, and receive praise. Now, the old molds don’t fit the needs of a young audience. This culture change has been occurring for years, but the change in ratings has only recently hit urgent levels. Networks might force the award shows to stay on the air. As time will tell us, they can’t force these awards to matter.