Televised awards shows fail to connect with broad audience

Televised awards shows fail to connect with broad audience

Televised awards shows celebrating the entertainment industry have seen steep declines in viewership lately. This week’s Emmy Awards broadcast on NBC provided ample evidence that broad audiences no longer flock to these once-popular broadcast spectacles. The broadcast attracted just over ten million viewers, an all-time low.

The Emmy ratings embarrassment is consistent with other televised awards shows in the last year. The Oscars broadcast last spring also hit an all-time low. The Grammys ceremony last winter was down 24 percent from the previous year, and the Golden Globes broadcast was also down. Only the Tony awards, broadcast in June, showed a modest gain this year but still was down 25 percent from 2016.


These awards shows have become over-the-top, self-congratulatory binges of the entertainment elite celebrating each other. Many average Americans apparently have a hard time viewing these extravaganzas and figuring out how they fit in. The entertainment establishment is, indeed, now an establishment of sorts, and it is detached from the rest of the country. That always has been true, to some extent, but it is increasingly more obvious now as entertainers posture on various causes and political high-horses.

Average consumers of mediated content want most to be entertained and/or distracted through television or film. Viewers like popular actors for their acting abilities and characterizations.  Viewers like certain television programs or movies for the exciting drama or comedy. Heavy-handed ideological lecturing under the guise of an awards show just sends viewers away. Hollywood has seriously miscalculated that fans of certain performers or shows care even a smidgen about those celebrities’ cultural or political issues.

The Emmy hosts this year, Colin Jost and Michael Che of “Saturday Night Live,” were believed by NBC to be so cool that they could turn around the slumping ratings of awards shows. SNL, however, appeals to a rather narrow audience niche and is known for its clear ideological thrust. Thus, these hosts were unable to draw a broader audience. What chance they did have to broaden audience appeal disappeared early when Che said, “The only white people who thank Jesus are Republicans and ex-crackheads.

Audiences used to look forward to awards shows to share the joy of common media experiences, but audiences are now so fragmented into niche programming that there is little shared media culture. The influence of the major broadcast networks has declined as subscription services such as HBO, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video gain popularity. Award-winning shows featured on Netflix or HBO aren’t even accessible to half of the nation’s population.

National common experience around video content is, of course, a thing of the past. Long gone are the days when a third of the nation watched “Gunsmoke” or “Happy Days” every week and everybody at the water cooler knew something about the plots and characters. Even with this new reality, it would be nice if the entertainment establishment would work to build national unity as opposed to exacerbating the nation’s polarized condition.

Despite the declining ratings, broadcast networks will continue to schedule and air an overabundance of awards shows. Since the programs are aired live, advertisers support them because live shows are more likely to be viewed in real time, commercials included. Further, going with these tired awards shows beats having to do the hard work of finding creative ways to fill network time.

The glory days of television and film are disappearing, along with the awards shows that celebrated such content. The entertainment world, no longer a source of common cultural experience, instead bogs the nation down with a mediated chaos in which high-profile performers delight. For many regular viewers, however, it just isn’t worth an evening in front of a screen to watch a Robert DeNiro blurt out vulgar insults at a sitting president. Those departing viewers are being underserved by a media industry that has chosen to disrupt rather than to unite American culture.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter, and as a political media consultant.