THB #220: Can The Dinosauring of Awards Shows Be Reversed? (Pt 1 of 2)
I’m tired of stories about award shows sucking, that awards shows are a dead business, and that “the kids” just don’t care anymore.
There is truth to all of it. I can’t argue the realities within that hyperbole.
But I also think the point now is to find answers to those issues, not to just keep jumping up and down on the dying pile of shows… an act which I have certainly been a participant in for years.
Thing is, within the industry, awards still do matter. EGOT. Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. Everything else is expendable. This doesn’t mean that everything else has to die. But in the conversation about how to bolster awards shows, we need to start with the big ticket items.
And we need to start the discussion with a clear deck.
We have all been looking at this for so long that we are really only arguing over slight variations of shade. I think it is in frustration that people just throw up their hands and are willing to take the position that we are permanently stuck or hopeless enough to throw it all out with a wince and a grin.
When I try to think about change, the thing that screams at me first is Time. When do we celebrate? What do we celebrate? How do we celebrate? All of these are weighed down by a long-established, previously successful idea of time.
When do we celebrate?
A 3-hour show was a great fit with a Sunday night when there’s 4 hours of Prime Time network television, with an hour before for network pre-show.
In 2022, what the hell is Prime Time? Sunday Night Football started in 2006, meaning that the most popular thing on network TV, NFL football, became 1p - 11p (eastern) programming, completely reshaping Sunday night television, which had been one of the most premium nights for network television for many years.
The movie industry realized that a March or February Oscar show meant maintaining buzz on a potential nominee for many months, including months into the next year after qualifying, while at the same time the studios were pushing - this is not new with streaming - for shorter and shorter windows since 1989’s Batman and sell-thru Home Entertainment.
Instead of ever seriously considering moving Mo (Oscar), the movie industry moved the mountain to Mo. Only once in the last 15 seasons has the Oscar winner not been launched domestically at a fall festival. The exception was CODA, which launched at Sundance. The steps are set. Everyone does the dance a little differently, but pretty much every serious hopeful launches in the last third of the year, at Telluride or Toronto, and works September, October, and November to voting audiences, often indifferent to theatrical audiences (if not dismissive nowadays), and working the steps.
Things are much more tenuous for the TV side (or the side of television willing to call itself television).
The Ted Lasso season that won this year’s Comedy Emmy earlier this week ended in October 2021, as did the nominated seasons of Only Murders in the Building and What We Do In The Shadows. Both shows had new seasons launch this summer, after this year’s Emmy qualifying date, ending in August. Curb Your Enthusiasm ended its season in December 2021. The Magnificent Mrs. Maisel ended in March 2022, Abbott Elementary (just 13 episodes old.. never reaching as many as 4 million people on ABC) in April, and Barry & Hacks both squeezed in under the wire, Hacks with 2 episodes a week to qualify in May, both ending in June.
Drama winner Succession was last seen with a new episode in December 2021. Limited Series winner The White Lotus ended last August… AUGUST! Over a year before the Emmys.
I love all these shows, but what the hell do you expect to attract to your award show more than a year after shows started qualifying?
I imagine - not an expert in this history, you might be - that Emmys timed themselves based on how Oscars time themselves, about 3 months after the end of their year. The TV season ended in May/June, so put the show in September, just before the fall TV season launches and you got all the excitement you need right there.
But in 2022, what the hell is a television season?
Look… you need to tie an awards event to something... though The Grammys seem to be rather random on timing. As a principle of marketing, this seems basic. But the significance of the landmarks these shows were built looks like Dresden in 1845.
Moreover, watching this stuff closely for over 2 decades… when the circumstances change, the studios and consultants change their planning. So it is possible!
The Tony Awards deadline sucks a lot of new shows to the last month before the end of qualifying, hoping to slingshot off Tony noms. Historically, that’s been true of Oscar too, though September is currently the key launch date. (The last normal Oscar season, 1917 released wide the weekend before nominations and grossed $120 million domestic of its $159 million post-nomination… so the slingshot can still work… even though the film lost to Parasite.)
What is the purpose of Oscar/Emmy/Tony/Grammy shows?
Four different award shows, four different answers.
Grammy has minimized the award show and made The Grammys primarily a performance platform. Recording artists care about the awards, but year after year, Grammy seems to find controversy over who is nominated and who wins the genre non-specific awards, like Song of the Year. The show has the feel of a celebration of the music industry, mixing and matching artists from different genres, reminding everyone of how great and spontaneous live music can be. And you may find some new songs that you didn’t yet know you loved.
Tony has kept the awards pretty much the same over the years, shifting slightly on trends, using the network TV show to showcase mostly musicals and celebrity, hoping to bring more Americans to Broadway. The community has been willing to show up early and support all the category winners that can’t fit on the live show for an hour before the live show. (This part of the show once aired on PBS, stopped being on TV for a few years, and this last season became a Paramount+ exclusive.)
Emmy now has 118 categories… that’s Primetime Emmys only. 25 of them are given out on the television show. 12 actors, 6 show categories, 4 writers, and 3 directors. They went to a ballroom with tables style this year, to mixed results. Perhaps it was a little too clever or not quite clever enough. So if you needed to define the purpose of the Emmy show now, aside from honoring talent of 118 stripes… I don’t see a purpose. I see habit. Who needs to sell the idea of television while we are all drowning in it?
Oscar is something I have written about a lot. I believe the show has lost its focus and its purpose. Oscar was conceived as a marketing platform. In its first year, 1927, there were only 3 Best Picture nominees. But 1934, there were 12 (only 5 of which most of you would recognize the name of). They cut it to 5 Best Picture nominees in 1944 for the next 55 years. The expansion in 2009 turned out to broaden the field for indies more than big popular films.
Then came 3 major changes to the face of Oscar. First, the arrival of Netflix 5 years ago, to which the Academy response was a committee that decided to do absolutely nothing about films being qualified with no theatrical at all, except the 7-day qualifying window. Second, The Academy decided to take control of the screener situation and create their own digital platform, effectively ending the use of the once endlessly used phrase since the start of screeners, “The Academy encourages every member to see the films on a theatrical screen.” Third, the expansion of the membership of The Academy via A2020, which ended up doing pretty well with adding women but while failing to bring up the ranks of people of color in the industry here in LA and NY, mostly expanded the ranks internationally. At the same time, there was no expansion of the status of international film at The Oscars, at all. Some feel that a group of 10,000 no longer has the legitimacy of exclusivity.
My feeling is that The Academy should be for theatrical films exclusively, which would still allow for Netflix and other streamers to participate fully, but under an expanded set of qualifying rules that would reset and equalize the playing field. If streamers want awards that are meant for theatrical movies, they can adjust. I’m not suggesting anything too drastic.
Somehow, in pretending that movies made for premium-TV are indistinguishable from films made for theatrical release, The Academy has helped devalue both and itself in just 5 years. Coincidentally (or not), these last 5 years have seen the worst ratings for Oscar ever.
In 2019, there were 7 theatrical movies nominated. 5 of them grossed over $100 million domestic. Two films, including the Best Picture winner, grossed just over $20 million domestic. Then there were 2 streaming movies with no box office history.
Why weren’t five $100 million domestic films enough to draw an audience?
I think it has a lot to do with purpose. Look at the line-up… it’s pretty amazing. Every movie brings a lot of quality, albeit not every movie is for every audience. Movies about and by women, a comic book movie, a movie in one continuous shot, Tarantino, Scorsese, dark comedy, a foreign language film, double Scarlet Johansson, a great boys-being-boys period piece.
But The Academy is not in the business of selling movies anymore. They somehow think they are making a show, desperate to find a young audience of non-movie-lovers. They have allowed “you can watch it on TV” to become an idea that they don’t want to be any different.
Chasing every path is never going to inspire anyone to follow any one path. Less can be more.
How do celebrate while also creating programming that excites an audience?
This is really the million dollar question. Are each of these groups making the right show to fulfill their ambitions moving forward? Are these shows simply vestiges of the past or do they speak to the moment of 2022 and beyond?
I don’t buy into the “real people don’t want to watch rich elites celebrate themselves” thing. The Grammys and Emmys don’t really do that… but they have still not been rewarded with better ratings.
There is certainly truth to the idea that talent is so exposed so often in social media that the novelty of an event where you get to see them out of context is not so novel anymore.
On the question of “fun,” I often remind people who suggest that the “fun” of The Golden Globes is more to people’s tastes… The Globes have not been close to the Oscar ratings historically.
This all begs the question, is there any answer? I think there are some ideas worth thinking about.
But I’m going to wait for tomorrow to get into that, as this got very long already. Tune in for Part 2.