Award shows and the pandemic

April 11, 2021

Television audiences are tuning out as award shows stumble on with restricted COVID-era telecasts

The Golden Globes 2021 was a mixture of celebrities getting together for the ceremony via Zoom with several choosing to opt for comfort (in their living rooms) against traditional red carpet experience.

Award show ratings are in freefall.

The world may still be struggling with a vexing virus that continues to run amok across the globe, but that hasn’t deterred the entertainment industry from hosting its various televised, self-congratulatory galas. If record-low ratings are anything to go by, then the viewers don’t seem particularly impressed.

There has been a massive slump in viewership numbers across the board, with tentpole events like the Grammys and Golden Globes reaching only half as many eyeballs as they did last year; both ceremonies had a year-to-year audience plummet of over 60 percent according to Nielsen. The Academy Awards now wait in the wings, hoping to avoid a similar fate.

To be fair, the pandemic is only partially to blame for the sorry state of award show affairs. Cracks had already begun to surface even before a pesky microscopic organism brought the world to a standstill. Ratings had been steadily declining over the last decade, with changing consumption habits fragmenting the audiences and a constant string of controversies – allegations of briberies and irregularities, nonsensical nominations and omissions – imbuing each event with a sour note. The Oscars were already too white, the Grammys already too male.

And then the pandemic happened…

…which didn’t exactly help matters.

To say that 2020 was a peculiar year for global entertainment would be an understatement. As the shutdowns and lockdowns rolled in some twelve months ago, the arts sectors were forced to rework their plans and schedules.

The music industry had to make do without live gigs, although the production of new content did continue steadily. For the film industry, the impact was more severe and immediate. Cinemas were closed, festivals cancelled, productions halted. Completed projects that were awaiting cinematic release were postponed, then delayed over and over again as filmmakers searched for a lucrative slot that would earn them the desired revenue. Those who attempted to plough ahead – like Christopher Nolan whose Tenet was the lone blockbuster of last summer – faced financial losses.

Most major films – from the James Bond outing No Time to Die to Marvel’s Black Widow – were thereby held back, and it’s under these circumstances that we arrived at the current award season.

The juries were left with a limited pool of output to choose from, many of their selections – like Oscar frontrunner Nomadland which has had a limited release – having made little to no connection with viewers. Barring Netflix offerings, the global audience has not had access to the same cinematic entertainment, while streaming – both music and movies – has ensured that homebound viewers are now even more fragmented than ever, widening the gap between audiences and those in charge of selecting the nominees.

But limited content and a splintered audience isn’t the only challenge award shows have been facing this year. What producers learned fairly quickly was that…

Holding a ceremony during a pandemic…

…is pretty challenging. Both the Emmys and the Globes were proof that glamour-stripped virtual events that look like three hour long celebrity conference calls don’t exactly make for riveting viewing. It also became obvious that swapping the traditional red carpet experience for living room comfort leads to a fair share of tie-dye hoodies and Hawaiian shirts – both fun fodder for memes but hardly in keeping with the glitz of a fancy Hollywood gala. Similarly, a smaller live audience doesn’t capture the energy of what is meant to be a big night. Add to that a lack of live performances or well-orchestrated skits and you’re effectively left with a damp squib.

The Grammys, which arrived after the aforementioned film awards, made some strides in the right direction, although they did stumble in several areas. Their major triumph was in actually succeeding to gather celebrities under one roof and minimizing the Zoom call aura that has become synonymous with the pandemic-era award show. But even music’s supposed biggest night went with pre-taped performances from several of its acts and also struggled to find artists that would appeal to a wider range of TV-viewing audience.

Perhaps a major issue all these shows have faced, especially in terms of attracting interest, has been just how unessential they seem during a global health crisis. Even attempts to honour essential workers and highlight the struggles of shuttered venues couldn’t significantly uplift Hollywood’s exercise in self-promotion. None of the ceremonies have managed to counter the fact that the viewers have more pressing things on their minds; whether a movie they have never seen will beat a movie they mildly enjoyed at the Oscars or whether an entitled white millionaire is going to win her umpteenth Grammy or not is hardly a priority at this point.

When the Oscars arrive later this month, they will be left to deal with the same issues. But in postponing their ceremony from February to April, they have earned the chance to learn from their predecessor’s mistakes and see…

What works and what doesn’t

The inevitable problems with nominations and content obviously remain. But if an award show wants viewers to tune in, then creating the live experience is essential. It’s plain to see that virtual ceremonies don’t work, and the Oscar producers have clearly taken notice of this issue. Desperate to not repeat the Globes debacle, the Academy Awards are overcorrecting the virtual problem by doing away with video conferencing entirely and forcing their nominees, should they want to deliver an acceptance speech, to attend in person. That should ensure the ceremony is more festive, but the decision to ban Zoom could potential be a logistical nightmare for many. While encouraging live attendance is definitely the way to go, outright forcing nominees to be there in person feels irresponsible; the pandemic, after all, is still ongoing.

Of course it’s not just the Oscars that find themselves in this peculiar predicament. Everyone from the British BAFTAs to the local LSAs are facing similar issues. But they now know that the conference call approach is no longer effective. To put on a successful show, producers need to handle COVID-era limitations and restrictions with inventiveness. There has been no shortage of creativity online, and if YouTubers can create amusing content while stuck in their rooms, then there is nothing stopping an entire team of entertainment industry creatives to do the same.

They’d also be wise to follow the Grammy’s lead and focus on putting on an entertaining show. Cutting down the length might also help. With so many options for what to watch and how to watch it, overlong award ceremonies no longer feel like essential viewing. Three hours of self-congratulatory twaddle is just way too many.

Even beyond the pandemic…

…the various academies need to perform some housekeeping. Calls for transparency have rattled the events again and again and it’s about time the organizations paid heed. Future shows could also benefit from finding the right balance between embracing viewers’ changing consumption habits and rewarding us by introducing us to spectacular indie art. Plus they need to be mindful of the fact that mere celebrity presence is no longer the same draw it was just a few decades ago; one quick visit to YouTube and Instagram and you are inundated with an endless string of star-studded content.

The live award show concept now needs to be looked at through a different lens, with more originality and creativity. Whatever they eventually choose to do, these ceremonies definitely need to figure out how to become relevant again. Either that or they risk fading away altogether.

Award shows and the pandemic