Awards viewership on the wane

Keala Settle performing This Is Me during the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on March 4.
Keala Settle performing This Is Me during the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on March 4.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Ratings for the Oscar, Grammy and Emmy ceremonies are freefalling on the back of other entertainment options

NEW YORK • The long and short of it is that the lengthy Oscar, Grammy and Emmy ceremonies - which have for decades served as staples of American television award ceremonies - are facing a shortage of viewers.

Ratings are in freefall for many possible reasons - audiences have plentiful other entertainment options and the hours-long award shows may be a switch-off for viewers, who could also be put off by the growing politicisation of the events.

Nielsen, which has been tracking audiences since 1974, has never seen fewer for the Oscars, the most glittering of the galas, than this year. About 26.5 million people in the United States watched the Oscars last week, a drop of nearly 20 per cent from just a year earlier.

Ratings for the Emmys - which honour work on the small screen - have been on a downward slide since 2013.

January's telecast of the Grammys brought in 19.8 million viewers, down 24 per cent from last year.

The right wing led by US President Donald Trump has been quick to gloat at the declining audience, seeing it as evidence that the American heartland is rejecting a cultural elitism represented by the entertainment industry. He was vigorously mocked at last year's awards shows.

"Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it," US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted during the Grammys after a skit skewered Mr Trump.

Mr Dom Caristi, a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Indiana, doubted politics had much of an impact on reducing viewership, saying there was no hard evidence to make the case.

For many experts, the award season's struggles have more to do with the diffusion of the small screen, with streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu offering advertisement-free choices ondemand.

Mr Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said for audiences last year, the ceremonies "go way too long".

The Oscars lasted three hours and 47 minutes and the "exciting stuff didn't happen until the last 45 minutes".

After a marathon show in 2002 that went on for four hours and 20 minutes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the Oscars, reduced the number of statuettes that are handed out during the ceremony.

But for Mr Thompson, the issue is not only the length, but also the content. "Some of the best actors in the country, in the world - they bring them up in their beautiful clothes and they read this copy that sounds like it was churned out by an accountant, read in an incredibly stilted way," he said.

In another possible pitfall for the Oscars, Mr Gabriel Rossman, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said many award-winning films were simply not popular.

Best Picture winners such as Moonlight (2016) and The Artist (2011) had critical acclaim but niche appeal.

In the 1990s, the top prize went to box-office hits such as Titanic and Forrest Gump.

After a controversy in 2009 when Batman film The Dark Knight failed to be nominated for Best Picture, the Academy raised the number of movies in competition for the top prize from five to 10.

But Mr Rossman said the impact was limited, with only two films nominated for Best Picture this year - Get Out and Dunkirk - finding major success at the box office.

Neither was a favourite to win the award, which went to the dark romantic fantasy The Shape Of Water.

Mr Thompson, however, said the film industry inevitably did not always consider blockbusters to be the year's best films.

"If you want to know the award for the most popular film, we've already got that award. It's called the box office," he added.

The Grammys have also faced uproar for its selections, but tend to recognise bigger-name artists.

Album of the Year in the past three shows went to Bruno Mars, Adele and Taylor Swift, all arena-filling stars.

Few experts see quick solutions, with radical changes to the format risking even further alienating regular viewers.

Mr Thompson said the Oscars could announce even more awards off-screen.

"The Oscar broadcast looks stodgy and old-fashioned and very much the same it has for a long time because the Academy, in many ways, has insisted that it stays that way. They are very protective of their brand," he added.

But he also put the decline in perspective. Even with falling viewers, the Oscars are "still the highest-rated non-sports event of the year".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2018, with the headline 'Awards viewership on the wane'. Print Edition | Subscribe