Commentary: Do Award Shows Still Matter?
Awards season is upon us and the Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, will be happening on 26 April. In recent years, these prestigious events have sparked online debates on the relevance of award shows among viewers in the modern era.
For decades the Academy Awards attracted at least 32 million viewers, and in some years even 40 to 50 million. In 2018, viewership plunged to just 26.5 million. Variety found that the median age of viewers for the four biggest award shows — the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and Grammys — was above 50 years old, meaning viewership is ageing and younger people are not tuning in.
In a poll we conducted on social media, our readers were almost equally divided on whether or not they still found award shows relevant to them. Interest in award shows seemed to be concentrated within older age groups, while younger audiences such as Gen Zs were less interested.
The internet has not been kind to the format of award shows. In the midst of rapid evolutions in technology, media consumption, and even the mediums of film, television and music, award shows run the risk of becoming very pastiche if they fail to recognise or act upon the growing need to adapt to the times.
Yet in spite of decreasing viewership, award shows continue to hold a great deal of influence. Nominations and wins often bring in massive revenue boosts. South Korean thriller Parasite saw a 234% increase in box office sales after clinching Best Picture last year. Winning the award was arguably what gave the film international recognition, especially in the United States.
Award shows like the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and Grammys serve as the pinnacle of recognition in their respective industries, but will audiences stop seeing the value in the awards? Do we live in a post-accolades era where awards no longer have an influence over an audience’s perception of art? Will award shows simply die out or is there any hope of a comeback?
When Award Shows Are Not Progressive Enough For the Times
In 2015, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral after the announcement that all 20 acting nominees for the 87th Academy Awards were white. The tag was trending on Twitter and people of colour both within and outside of the film industry took to social media to criticise the Academy. The activist who started the hashtag, April Reign, says it only reflected the tip of the massive iceberg that was the Academy’s lack of diversity. That same year no women were nominated for Best Director nor were any visibly disabled people nominated for any of the categories.
2016 rolled around and for a second year in a row, all 20 acting nominees went to white actors again. “One time you could call a fluke, two times feels like a pattern,” Reign told the New York Times. Unsurprisingly, the backlash online was swift and relentless, reviving the #OscarsSoWhite movement from the year before. The front page of the Los Angeles Times printed “Where’s the Diversity?” Actors and filmmakers of colour including Will Smith and Spike Lee announced that they were boycotting the award show that year. The Academy was forced to hold an emergency meeting a week later to discuss plans to improve representation at the Oscars.
In the words of New York Times reporter Reggie Ugwu who spoke to those directly involved with the #OscarsSoWhite movement: “In the movie business, nothing is feared like bad press”. Despite the Academy’s subsequent responses to criticism, the damage had already been done.
When award shows don’t validate their audiences
To its respective industries, award shows are a recognition of skill and artistry. Films love to flaunt their nominations and accolades because nothing screams “this is a must-watch!” more than being able to add “Academy Award nominee” or “Academy Award winner” onto a film. But to audiences, award shows serve a much different purpose.
Audiences often look to these award shows for a sense of validation in their personal preferences. When a work or artist we like is nominated, we feel validated. But when a nomination or an award goes to a work or artist we do not like instead of our personal picks, audiences can be quick to condemn the judging panels for giving credit to those that do not deserve the honour.
This criticism is often seen directed towards the Best Animated Feature Film category at the Oscars, which some believe the Academy has stereotyped to be reserved for children’s cartoons and continues to be dominated by the biggest American animation studios — Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks.
In 2018, the internet blew up over The Boss Baby receiving a nomination over The Lego Batman Movie. Many saw this as a classic example of the Academy pandering to bigger animation studios and stereotyping animated films to be childish comedies. Just one year later, audiences reacted with excitement when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse beat out two Disney sequels, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Incredibles 2, to win the category. This broke Disney’s seven-year win streak and was regarded as a huge step forward for representation and diversity at the Oscars.
Perhaps what this shows us is that the Oscars’ ability to adhere to audiences’ preferences dictates the value of the award itself, rather than the actual panel of judges. As the film, television and music industries become more saturated and varied, naturally so do the likes and dislikes of audiences. When it becomes more difficult for award shows to align with these preferences, audiences no longer derive the validation they crave from award shows and they stop giving award shows the recognition it needs to remain relevant.
When No One Watches Live Television Anymore
But despite having much room for improvement, award shows themselves are not completely to fault. Perhaps award shows are also victims to their traditional formats and are now inevitably affected by the decline of network television.
The rise of online streaming services has become a threat to network television in recent years. Platforms like Netflix and Hulu have been growing at breakneck speeds, leaving network television behind in the dust. Award shows still continue to draw in the most viewers on network television, second only to football. But even if the percentage of television viewers that care about award shows is high, it cannot stop the shrinking overall audience size that network television reaches.
The Academy Awards run on for longer than many people are willing to sit through — about three and a half hours, mostly taken up by acceptance speeches. Modern audiences have become more and more accustomed to fast-paced entertainment and instant gratification, leading us to have less patience for lengthy and drawn-out content like the Oscars. Why sit through three and a half hours when you can just check the list of winners the next morning?
The solution to this is to shorten the award show, but with speeches limited to 45 seconds, the Oscars are already known to chase people off stage to adhere to the time restraints. In 2019, the Academy attempted to cut four categories from the live broadcast, which members of industry felt diminished the work that goes into filmmaking. The Academy later backtracked on the decision.
While live performances at the Grammys by nominated artists appeal to fans and draw in viewers, the Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys are unable to recreate this same spectacle on stage to represent film and television. However all these award shows share the common trope of a celebrity host who spices up the night with skits and comedic routines.
For the third year in a row the Oscars has decided to do away with a host, which may affect the overall broadcast time but runs the risk of losing viewers who in the past have tuned in to watch their favourite celebrities take the stage.
The Oscars have instead chosen to use an ensemble of celebrity presenters throughout the programme. This year will feature the likes of Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Bong Joon Ho, Don Cheadle, Harrison Ford, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Zendaya, and many more. This tactic is going to count on star power to bring in the views.
When There’s a Global Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted the film, television and music industries. With country-wide lockdowns and massive restrictions in place, fewer movies and shows were being made. For audiences at home, cinemas were a no-go.
Historically the Academy has required a theatrical release in order for a film to qualify for an award, which rules out any films that are released directly on streaming services such as Netflix exclusives. The rise of online streaming did not budge the Academy on this rule for years, however the pandemic has finally forced their hand in making an exception this time.
Despite the changes, this year’s nominees have still been cited as relatively “unknown” to general audiences. In a survey by Guts + Data, even the most well-known film of the lot was unheard of to most of the respondents. The lack of interest in the movies may unfortunately lead to a lack of interest in seeing awards being handed out to them as well.
There is a silver living — this year’s Oscars is making history as the most diverse yet. Nine out of 20 nominations in the acting categories have gone to people of colour, Chloe Zhao is the first woman of colour nominated for Best Director, Steven Yuen is the first Asian-American to be nominated for Best Actor, two women have been nominated for Best Director, and 70 women have received a total of 76 nominations.
Whether these nominations will translate to meaningful, long-overdue changes in acceptance of diversity for the general moviegoing audience will have to be seen. Perhaps this could feed from the momentum generated by Parasite last year.
Prestigious award shows may be rooted in their traditional ways, but when push comes to shove, they will have to adapt with the times to retain their relevance and value. The changes are slow but sure — while award shows may be hesitant, there may be no greater motivation than the fear of becoming irrelevant. Only time will tell if award shows can adapt quick enough to catch up.
Channel 5 and meWATCH will be airing this year’s Academy Awards live on April 26, with the main show starting at 8am (GMT+8). The telecast will be available on meWATCH until May 19.