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Award Shows: Special, but Not All That Special

Viewpoint: Brad Adgate, Horizon Media

By Published on . 3

In February, the broadcast networks air three of their highest-rated specials, the Super Bowl, the Grammy Awards and the Academy Awards, in what would typically be the "sweeps." The only problem is that this year, February sweeps have been delayed to accommodate the transition to digital TV on Feb. 17, which apparently will now most likely be delayed until June 12 (the February sweeps in 2009 will begin on March 5). The other major problem? Two of these shows, the Grammy Awards and the Academy Awards, have been in a ratings tailspin.

Last year's Academy Awards were reportedly the lowest-rated in 39 years, attracting only 32 million viewers (live plus same day), and marking a decline in viewing for the fifth straight year.
Last year's Academy Awards were reportedly the lowest-rated in 39 years, attracting only 32 million viewers (live plus same day), and marking a decline in viewing for the fifth straight year. Credit: AP
And it's not just those two high-profile award shows that have suffered audience erosion annually. Virtually every other annual award show is undergoing the same fate.

Last year's Academy Awards were reportedly the lowest-rated in 39 years, attracting only 32 million viewers (live plus same day). This marked the fifth straight year the Academy Awards reported a decline in viewing. ABC has dropped the cost of a thirty-second commercial to $1.4 million for 2009 (from $1.7 million). The Oscars will also accept movie ads, with certain restrictions, for the first time.

The Grammy Awards have not fared much better, averaging only 17.2 million viewers, among the lowest in years. The audience for the Grammy Awards has also been in a steady downward spiral. In 2008, the Grammy Awards telecast was 3 hours and 40 minutes, the longest since 1992.

Not just Grammys and Oscars
The decline in award shows is not limited to the Oscars and Grammys. Many other award shows on broadcast TV have suffered their lowest or near-lowest ratings in 2008 or 2009.

For example, the 2008 Primetime Emmy Awards drew only 12.3 million viewers, a drop of 33% since 2005. The audience levels were comparable to the 1990 Emmy Awards, the least-watched in history. The 2008 Daytime Emmy Awards followed suit, attracting only 5.4 million viewers and a measly 1.2 rating for adults 18-49. (While honoring daytime TV, the award show airs in prime-time, most recently in June.) The Tony Awards, one of the lowest-rated award shows on TV, continues to suffer from poor audience levels. The 2008 show generated only 6.3 million viewers, a slight increase from 2007 but a drop of 18% from 2006. The Tony Awards averaged a paltry 1.1. rating among adults 18-49.

While the writers strike wreaked havoc with the 2008 People's Choice Awards and Golden Globe Awards, the audience for both award shows in 2009 did not bounce back from 2007. The ratings for the 2009 Golden Globes were the lowest since it moved to broadcast TV from cable in 1996. Total viewers were down 24% when compared with 2007. The 2009 People's Choice Awards averaged 9.4 million viewers. The audience for the award show has been in steady decline before reaching its nadir in 2009.

Recent drop
The audience delivery of other award shows such as the American Music Awards, ACM Awards and CMA Awards have actually held in recent years. Nonetheless, the ratings have not held compared with just a few years ago.

What has happened to award shows? Besides the obvious answers such as the continued fractionalization of TV, the shows are too long, there is a glut of award shows on broadcast and cable, many of the nominees televised are too obscure, and too much time is spent on the less-prestigious categories. There are also some other factors to consider.

The award shows are becoming passe with the changing tastes of viewers, especially younger viewers. Award shows, similar to beauty pageants, have been on TV since the early days. While there are still beauty pageants on network TV (e.g., Miss Universe, Miss USA), they are also reporting the same steady audience erosion that many awards shows have recorded. The once top-rated Miss America pageant has even moved to cable after an abysmal showing in 2004.

Audiences getting older
The current median age of award shows proves younger viewers are less interested in these types of shows. Many now have a median audience age of above 50, and are getting older each year. The most recent airing of the Primetime Emmys had a median viewer age of 52.1, the Daytime Emmys was 58.4, the People's Choice Awards 50.8, the Tony Awards 61.3 and the ACM Awards was 54.7. Other award shows are at the very high end of the key 18-49 demographic, including the Academy Awards at 49.5 and the CMA Awards at 49.9. Only the 2008 Grammy Awards at 45.2 (up from 38.2 in 2004, however) and the American Music Awards at 40.2 fall comfortably within the desired demographic for marketers.

Award shows now face competition from the surplus of reality programs on TV. Award shows too are, at the root, unscripted or partially unscripted competition shows, not too dissimilar from "Dancing with the Stars," "American Idol" or "The Apprentice" (to name only a few). This was brought to light humorously during the 2008 Primetime Emmy Awards, when Jimmy Kimmel announced that "the winner for the most outstanding host of a reality show or reality competition show is ... going to be revealed when we come back after this break." For the record, Jeff Probst beat out Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Ryan Seacrest and Tom Bergeron to win the Emmy in the new category.

Today performers have become overexposed by celebrity magazines, entertainment-news shows and cable networks, as well as the internet. The everyday movements (some can be embarrassing) of high-profile personalities are followed like never before. Hence, an appearance on TV award shows is no longer the novelty it once was.

Highlights are on web, anyway
If the only interest viewers have in award shows consists of "Who won?" "What was said?" and "What did they wear?" then the web can provide them with all those recaps or reviews almost immediately, instead of watching several hours of the program on TV.

The changing model for music may also have an impact on the Grammy Awards and other music award shows. Today people can easily listen to any song and watch any music video on demand via the internet or MP3 player. This negates the purpose of appointment viewing required with award shows and the aura of watching a "live" performance.

That said, award shows will probably not disappear from the TV prime-time landscape the way Westerns and variety show have. (Although several award shows such as the Billboard Music Awards, the Blockbuster Awards or the American Comedy Awards no longer air on TV.) Award shows are live and less likely to be time-shifted, despite declining ratings. They still deliver higher ratings than most regularly scheduled shows. They can still win their time period and could even be the top-rated show of the week. But there's no denying that award shows are not the blockbuster events on TV that they use to be. The Oscars have been called "The Super Bowl for Women." These days "The Super Bowl for Women" is the Super Bowl.

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