The Oscars, Grammys and Emmys have for decades served as staples of US television award ceremonies that kick off the year and shape the pop culture conversation.
But ratings are in freefall for many possible reasons — audiences now have plentiful other options outside of traditional broadcasts and the hours-long award shows may be too much of a slog for viewers, who could also be put off by the growing politicization of the awards.
Nielsen, which has been tracking the shows’ audiences since 1974, has never seen fewer viewers for the Oscars, the most glittering of the galas, than this year.
Some 26.5 million people in the United States watched the Oscars last week, a drop of nearly 20 percent from just a year earlier.
The right wing led by President Donald Trump has been quick to gloat at the declining audience, seeing it as evidence that the American heartland is rejecting a cultural elitism represented by the entertainment industry.
Trump was vigorously mocked at last year’s awards shows while the latest Oscars celebrated women’s empowerment and the #MeToo movement in the wake of abuse scandals in Hollywood’s ranks.
The shows, stung by criticism over white artists’ domination, have also moved to ramp up representation of African Americans.
“Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it,” Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted during the Grammys after a skit skewered Trump and featured a cameo by Hillary Clinton.
Dom Caristi, a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Indiana, doubted that politics had much of an impact in reducing viewership, saying there was no hard evidence to make the case.
For many experts, the award season’s struggles have more to do with the diffusion of the small screen, with streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu offering advertisement-free entertainment on-demand.
Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said that for audiences in 2017 the ceremonies “go way too long.”
The Oscars lasted three hours and 47 minutes “and, on top of that, all of the good, exciting stuff didn’t happen until the last 45 minutes,” Thompson said.
After a marathon show in 2002 that went on for four hours and 20 minutes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the Oscars, reduced the number of statuettes that are handed out during the ceremony.
But for Thompson, the issue is not only the length but the content.
“Some of the best actors in the country, in the world — they bring them up in their beautiful clothes and they read this copy that sounds like it was churned out by an accountant, read in an incredibly stilted way,” Thompson said.
– Blockbusters cast aside –
In another possible pitfall for the Oscars, Gabriel Rossman, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that many award-winning films were simply not popular.
Recent winners of Best Picture such as “Moonlight” and “The Artist” enjoyed critical acclaim but niche appeal.
In the 1990s, the top prize went to box-office smash hits such as “Titanic” and “Forrest Gump.”
“Generally, you’ve seen a decline in middle-range movies. Movies now are either absolutely tiny or they’re really expensive comic book films. And there’s very little in between,” he said.
After a controversy in 2009 when Batman film “The Dark Knight” failed to be nominated for Best Picture, the Academy raised the number of movies in competition for the top prize from five to 10.
But Rossman said that the impact was limited with only two films nominated for Best Picture this year — “Get Out” and “Dunkirk” — finding major success at the box office.
Neither was a favorite to win the award, which went to the dark romantic fantasy “The Shape of Water.”
Thompson, however, said that the film industry inevitably did not always consider blockbusters to be the year’s best films.
“If you want to know the award for the most popular film, we’ve already got that award. It’s called the box office,” he said.
– No easy fix –
The Grammys, which draw fewer viewers than the Oscars, have also faced controversy for its selections but tend to recognize bigger-name artists.
Album of the Year in the past three shows went to Bruno Mars, Adele and Taylor Swift, all of them arena-filling stars.
Few experts see quick solutions, with radical changes to the format risking even further alienating regular viewers.
Thompson said that the Oscars could announce even more awards off-screen.
“The Oscar broadcast looks stodgy and old-fashioned and very much the same it has for a long time because the Academy in many ways has insisted that it stays that way. They are very protective of their brand,” he said.
But he also put the decline in perspective. Even with falling viewers, the Oscars are “still the highest-rated non-sports event of the year.”