The first major entertainment award show to be aired on national television was the 25th Academy Awards, which was shown on NBC on March 19th, 1953. The first-ever Grammy Awards took place a few years later with a national broadcast on ABC from The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA.
In the decades that have followed, award shows have exploded within the music side of America’s bloated entertainment industry. There are now over two dozen major events which take place every year, including the American Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, The Soul Train Music Awards, People’s Choice Awards, iHeartRadio Music Awards, CMT Music Awards, BET Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards, Heat Latin Music Awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, NAACP Image Awards, Latin Grammys, and the Latin American Music Awards, just to name a few.
For a long time, it seemed American audiences thoroughly enjoyed taking a three-hour break from their middle and working-class realities every so often by turning on their televisions to watch the biggest pop artists and “celebrity”-level musicians—the 1% of the entertainment world—walk red carpets alongside drool-worthy dates while sporting outrageously expensive, often outlandish wardrobes. These are the same musicians who hilariously pretend to like one another long enough to hand off the next trophy and scurry back to their ego-driven management teams and label executives awaiting backstage to keep the party going.
As television ratings continued to grow alongside America’s odd obsession with celebrity culture throughout the ’80s into the ’90s, so did the marketing, broadcast, and production budgets for each award show. Before long, the concept of “Award Season” was born, resulting in all-day coverage of the major award shows worthy of rivaling the Super Bowl. Watching the Grammy Awards has become an all-day affair beginning with pre-show and red carpet coverage, the lengthy show itself, and closing with post-event interviews and day-after programming with shows like Fashion Police on E!
Over the last decade, however, America has proven to show less and less interest in watching millionaires lavishly congratulate one another’s commercial successes. The 2020 Grammy Awards hit a 12-year low in television ratings, drawing in 18.7 million viewers and posting a 5.4 rating among adults ages 18-49, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The 2020 broadcast saw the show’s smallest television viewership since 2008 when 17.18 million fans tuned in from home, in addition to its lowest-ever ratings among viewers aged 18-49.
Interestingly enough, this year’s Academy Awards also set a new low in television ratings by drawing in a reported 23.6 million total viewers, down from the 2018 show which set a then-lowest rating record of 26.5 million. To add insult to injury, the 2020 Golden Globes also saw a 2% viewership drop from 2019 to set its own new low, and the 2020 Emmys’ ratings slouched downward by 32% to 6.9 million viewers.
Award Show Viewer Rating Data (1980-2020)
The numbers don’t lie: Award shows continue to draw less and less interest amongst American audiences every year, which should encourage both fans and industry personnel to ask the same question—is it finally time to just give up on televised award shows?
Award shows do accomplish one feat very well. Under the guise of “entertainment,” the all-day broadcasts succeed in showcasing the immense levels of income inequality within our society. The themes for these events should be less about celebrating the industry and the art and more about highlighting the excessive difference in lifestyles between the Haves and the Have-Nots of the world. It’s worth remembering that the 24 major award nominees at this year’s Academy Awards each received a six-figure gift bag courtesy of Distinctive Assets which Forbes valued at a disgusting $225,000 (the 2019 gift bags were valued at $80,000). That’s quite the not-so-subtle display of wealth in a place like Los Angeles which is littered with pop-up homeless tent towns and widespread poverty.
At a time when evidence of economic disparity is presented to Americans as plain and simple fact, one can imagine that the millions of folks across the country who now find themselves in search for any kind of income won’t care to celebrate the successes (and excesses) of the wealthier portion of the population going forward—and the television networks know that. It’s no coincidence that once-popular television shows flaunting excessive wealth like MTV Cribs never made much of an impact in the years since the 2008 financial crises which led to a country-wide recession, and label executives still wonder why no one puts a strong financial value on their product anymore.
The other point to examine here is the utter silliness of the music industry suggesting the need to turn a gift as healing and powerful as music into a competition where there are winners and losers. There should be no concept of “losers” in a music setting. If you’ve made a point to leave the house and spend your hard-earned money celebrating such a community-building and soul-defining experience that is live music, you’re a winner. Are artists’ egos in such desperate need for consumer and industry approval these days that trophies and speeches are still required?
The musical performances at award shows—or any television show in general—are rarely any good. There’s always some kind of production mishap, the audio is never clear and, sadly, there’s enough lip-syncing to make Milli Vanilli look like innocent bystanders. Let us also not forget, award shows are just that—television shows. Ratings are the name of the game, and in order to succeed, producers have to get those confirmed RSVPs from artists popular enough to draw in a major television audience. It’s why the Taylor Swifts, Kanye Wests, Dave Grohls, Blake Sheltons, and Ariana Grandes of the industry will always find their way into the nomination categories over a mid-level band or artist worthy of some much-needed national recognition. Every so often, an Esperanza Spalding will beat the odds for “Best New Artist”, but Spalding can’t draw in the three million additional television viewers that a Demi Lovato can.
A number of fans, critics, and artists voiced their complaints a few years back when Adele beat Beyoncé in the “Album of the Year” category at the Grammys. While the complaints have all been at least somewhat justified—”Why aren’t more black artists winning?”, “Why aren’t there more female hosts?”—those are all simply the wrong questions being asked. The real, brutally honest question every music fan should be self-assessing with is, “Should anyone really give a sh*t if Beyoncé, one of the most commercially successful artists of the past two decades, wins an industry-sponsored trophy designed to sell more records?”
The way Americans view celebrity culture and wealth will not be the same after the COVID-19 era. Online influencers are now shown to have little to no value in a society where people aren’t spending money on unnecessary physical products and booking destination vacations. Everyday values and the concept of what makes a “Hero” or “Icon” are being reexamined en masse by those around the world with the complete removal of rock stars, movie stars, and athletes from our daily lives. Doctors, Community Leaders, and First Responders have replaced those roles as the professions which everyone is looking up to and applauding these days.
Perhaps, when this is all said and done, society will continue to reexamine what parts of our old lives were really that important to us. If we as a music community can come out of this with our sanity still intact, perhaps we can also come to the realization that award shows were never really worth the attention to begin with.