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In today’s era of television, 11 million viewers would make a show a certified hit. But when you’re the Emmys? That number is worrying. September’s soiree, hosted by Stephen Colbert and full of jokes about President Trump and speeches that were by turns pretentious (Nicole Kidman) and memorable (Sterling K. Brown), didn’t improve on the previous ceremony’s ratings, which were pretty low to begin with. Even the rare presence of a popular network show — This Is Us — in the Outstanding Drama category didn’t do anything to goose the numbers.
The Emmys aren’t the only awards show suffering: the 2017 Oscars garnered a paltry (for the Oscars) 32.9 million viewers, and a 9.1 rating in the coveted 18-49 demo, a 14 percent drop from 2016.
The marquee nights for both the television and film academies are suffering more than some of the other big-time awards shows: The Golden Globes were up in viewership in January of 2017 and the Grammys have been on the rise for three years running, garnering 26 million viewers in 2017.
Still, compared to the 2012 Grammys’ 39 million viewers, that’s peanuts. Why are people tuning out these once-reliable audience draws?
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There was a time when you could tune into the Oscars to see the biggest moneymakers of that year competing against each other, then later in the year watch as TV’s biggest stars would square off for Emmys. E.T. vs. Tootsie. Cheers vs. The Golden Girls. L.A. Law vs. Murder, She Wrote. These were shows tens of millions of people watched.
Now? More often than not, Oscar nominees are limited-release “awards bait” art films that get shown in a few theaters in December before going wider. And, as a survey by the Katz Media Group found, most of the shows nominated for Emmys this year are recognized by fewer than 50 percent of the respondents; some streaming shows, like Master of None, are barely even heard of — much less watched. Only 20 percent of those polled heard of this year’s drama winner, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Back before the rise of cable in the 1980s, “television was the mass medium,” Robert Thompson, professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told Rotten Tomatoes. “Everybody had at least heard of all the nominees. People were watching the same stuff at the same time. That’s not the case anymore. People won’t care as much if they’ve never seen the nominees.”
Tom O’Neil, editor of awards-tracking site Gold Derby, said, “Award show ratings are the highest when viewers have nominees their rooting for. When Brie Larson wins Best Actress at the Oscars, everyone says, ‘who?'”
Ironically, the Emmys are more relevant even if people aren’t watching, Thompson said.
“There are people who, if they’re sitting down and watching the Emmys, are hearing about The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time.” Despite that, he theorizes, “The commitment and interest of people who do watch the Emmys have gone up, but the nominated shows have such comparatively small audiences compared to network shows, the [total] audience is going down.”
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The current glut of television doesn’t just mean the 400-plus scripted shows viewers could choose from this past year (which, according to the most recent estimate from FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, could top 500 titles in 2017). The night the ceremony airs, there’s just so many other entertainment choices that are likely preferable to seeing who won for best makeup and costumes. There are streaming series, social media, movies, and even other live events to choose from.
“Those choices are increasing on a year-to-year basis, there are only so many people and only so many hours that they’re watching television,” Thompson said. “Awards shows are no different than anything else, except the Super Bowl.” He joked, “Between the time the Emmys start and when they finish, Netflix will have released three new series.”
And, more than ever, other networks don’t care about programming original shows or live events against the Oscars or Emmys.
“Networks can no longer afford to write off an evening,” Thompson said.
In the olden days of awards shows, if you had any passing interest in the Oscars or Emmys — or in any of the nominated movies and shows — you sat down and watched at least part of the ceremony. Now, the casual fan can follow along on social media, looking at a live-feed of the show via news articles about each winner and wise-acre remarks from their friends.
If a person is interested in red carpet fashion, photos of the stars in their gowns are online hours before the ceremony starts. And if they’re interested in watching the “big moment,” clips are on YouTube before the night is over. If a person doesn’t care about catching the watercooler moment live — say, watching La La Land getting Best Picture instead of Moonlight by mistake — they can just watch the clip the next morning and be caught up.
That’s not to say social media is a blight on award shows; for those who are fans of the shows, the multi-screen experience only enhances how they watch the ceremony. But the casual viewer no longer has to tune in live to see the best nuggets from three-plus hours of TV.
“People still love to tune in to see what people are wearing, but at the same time they could also binge a show while the awards are on and then click through a best and worst photo gallery the next day — on every entertainment [site] — in five minutes,” said Amber Dowling, former president of the Television Critics Association and a writer for Variety and IndieWire.
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When the Golden Globes moved from cable afterthought to a big network awards night in the early ’00s, it proved to all networks that they don’t just need to air the major award shows in order to attract an audience.
“They’ve cheapened the experience,” Dowling said. “There seems to be a televised awards show for everything these days. There seems to always be a new show on the air doling out trophies, which, sadly, makes them a little less special. The Emmys still hold the greatest prestige on the TV circuit, but mostly because industry insiders care about them, not the general public.”
At a certain point, especially between when the Globes air in January and the Oscars air in February or March, award fatigue sets in. But networks won’t stop airing them.
“The awards shows are very cheap to produce because you get this amazing star wattage for free,” O’Neil said. “You get to see superstars win and lose, just like you and me. It’s vulgar and tasteless, but it’s thrilling to watch because it’s real.”
The Golden Globes holds an audiences every year by keeping the ceremony an intimate banquet where booze flows and generally refusing to take itself seriously. The Grammys were reinvented to look more like the MTV Video Music Awards, filled with performances and light on the actual award-giving, and the excitement generated has boosted the viewership every year.
The Emmys and Oscars, on the other hand, are largely unchanged since at least the 1970s: People in gowns and tuxes reading stiffly off TelePrompTers. Awards for categories no one cares about. A massive orchestra playing people off even if their speeches are entertaining.
“These things are so old-fashioned, if it weren’t for who the nominees were, the broadcast could be coming from 1967,” Thompson said. “The fact is the Oscars and Emmys have a lot of categories, and only so much time to get through them. If it’s anything, it’s an exercise in traffic direction. As long as we stick to that format, there’s not a whole lot you can do within it.”
Is there anything the motion picture and television academies can do to modernize their ceremonies?
“Let’s start by not having another white, male host,” Dowling said. “Make the show more energetic, shorter, and only give out the awards people really want to see live.”
O’Neil said: “They can tweak their voting process to make it more populist, but it’s not their job. The things they can do is have Lady Gaga sing on the Oscars, install populist hosts. But do we want to see Justin Bieber preside over the Emmys when Stephen Colbert is just the right tonic?”
Then again, Thompson said, simply having more moments like this year’s Best Picture blunder could do the ratings a world of good.
“If I were producing these things, I’d script screw-ups,” he joked. “I don’t know how long I’d get away with it, though.”
The 75th Golden Globes ceremony airs Sunday, Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on NBC; the 90th Annual Academy Awards ceremony airs March 4 at 8 p.m. ET/ 5 p.m. PT on ABC. To see more awards season dates, see our “2017-2018 Awards Season Calendar.”