As 2017’s major awards shows fade out of sight, we can look back on the season as one marked by explicit political statements, Steve Harvey-esque flubs, but most importantly, one plagued by growing apathy.
Ratings for major shows, like the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys, have been falling for a few years. Last year’s Oscars had the third fewest viewers in history, and this year’s instalment dropped four per cent from that figure. The Emmy’s had the lowest ratings in its history this past September, a five per cent drop from its previous all-time low just a year earlier in 2015. And viewers aren’t the only ones tuning out. Music superstars Drake, Justin Bieber, and Kanye West declined their Grammy invitations this year, because the Grammys are “out of touch and arguably irrelevant.” A sentiment echoed by Frank Ocean, who refused to submit his widely-acclaimed album BLONDE for Grammy contention, arguing in a Tumblr post that the music awards show is “faulty TV.”
The disinterest in award shows is caused by a combination of issues, but begins with the perception that they simply do a terrible job picking quality winners, let alone worthy nominees. This year, the Grammys were criticized for awarding Album of the Year to Adele’s 25 instead of Beyonce’s magnum opus, Lemonade. This comes one year after similar criticism for awarding AOTY to Taylor Swift’s 1989 rather than Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. While awards shows inevitably recognize music for its pop culture relevance, selling ability, and radio popularity, having a how-to-get-over-heartbreak-and-unrequited-love pop album win over a socially conscious ode to ‘60s and ‘70s jazz can be seen as yet another out of touch example of an award going to the most popular album rather than the best. Decisions like this continue to taint the Grammy’s credibility as a judge of musical excellence and quality.
What’s more troubling is that these decisions are now inspiring the same celebrities — Drake, Bieber and West — who are showcased and celebrated during awards season to lose interest as well. For both intended audiences and celebrities to tune out is doubly embarrassing and worrisome.
Even if awards shows somehow figured out how to improve their selection process and waning credibility in the artist community, they would likely still struggle to be remembered each year as more than a fleeting hashtag. Last year’s Oscars was hijacked by the Twitter trend #OscarsSoWhite and the boycott of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — a group that skews white, old and male — by some of Hollywood’s top black actors and actresses who were upset over the lack of recognition given to movies produced by, directed by, or starring people of colour (in non-racially defined roles, i.e. servant or slave). While the hashtag and boycott led the Academy to debate internally on how to properly address and remedy its equality issue, having an awards show seen as inherently discriminatory puts its validity and legitimacy in question to not only the general public, but to actors and actresses as well.
The increased irrelevance of award shows also follows the upheaval that is happening, and has happened, to the way we consume our music, movies and television. Traditional mediums like physical albums, cable television and movie theatres are being replaced by streaming, Netflix and Netflix, respectively. While their death is discussed ad nauseam, the point remains that the entertainment industry, like nearly every other industry, is having trouble transitioning and adapting to this new landscape. The Grammys, Emmys, and Oscars are productions that historically, by design or not, reward entertainment that do well on traditional mediums. But, by being awards shows that rely on these mediums, they are relegated to obsolescence when these mediums are too.
Despite all of this, it’s easy to overreact to these developments. Drake, Kanye, and Bieber are only three celebrities in a town full of them, and television viewership and ratings are reaching all-time lows for nearly all networks and programs. The Oscars have been running for 89 years, The Emmys for 68, and the Grammys for 59. They’ve managed to survive all other crises during that time, so the prevailing logic is that they’ll survive this too. But, it’s crucial to remember that they may not. What bigger crisis could the Grammys face than both celebrities and general public alike tuning out? What can be more tarnishing and harmful to the Oscars existence than being viewed as inherently discriminatory? These are the sort of existential problems that can damage the future of both award shows.
On the other hand, these are also the sort of crises that can push the awards shows to implement quality, substantive changes for the better. An overhaul isn’t needed — part of the lustre of award shows is the historical significance. Rather, by committing to a few tweaks, such as better representation, commitment to the selection of quality, and committing to staying on par with technological progress, they should be able to yield the social and cultural capital they used to possess.