By Aditi Ravi Balasubramanian, Rusty Gorelick, Grace Knoop, Venette L. Simon, Shana Singh
Boston University News Service
The 94th Academy Awards ceremony, held in Los Angeles last month, aired on television and streaming platforms for viewers across the world. The 2021 Apple TV+ drama, “Coda,” won best picture. Disney’s “Encanto” won best animated feature. Will Smith took home the award for best actor for his portrayal of Richard Williams in “King Richard.” The night will not be remembered for these accomplishments, but rather for the infamous assault that spiked Oscar viewership.
A few moments before winning and accepting his award, Smith shocked everyone by walking on stage and slapping comedian Chris Rock in the face, following a joke made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock, who was presenting the award for best documentary feature, seemed stunned by the slap.
This moment sent social media into a frenzy, leading thousands of people — who may not have planned on watching — to tune their televisions to the ceremony, eager to view the aftermath.
Not only did the incident between Smith and Rock take the spotlight away from other historic wins, like actor Samuel L. Jackson receiving his first Oscar, and “Coda” sweeping its three nominations, but it also caused a sharp increase in viewership during the Academy Awards.
As previously reported by The New York Times, roughly 550,000 people started watching the Oscars following the slap. The audience jumped from 16.8 million to 17.4 million in minutes. After a brief decline in views, the audience again rose to 17.4 million when Smith accepted his award for Best Actor. The show’s highest audience occurred earlier in the night, at 17.7 million.
George Howard, a music business professor at Berklee College of Music, commented on the lack of relevance in today’s awards shows. He said these shows have not “kept pace with the times” and that more media options mean that people no longer view art as a competition, as was more common in the 1950s-2000s.
“Nobody fuckin’ cares who wins what,” Howard said. “Nobody remembers. The most noteworthy thing about the Oscars was Will Smith smacking Chris Rock. That’s a sad commentary.”
Recently, award shows have declined in popularity. Last year, only about 9.85 million viewers watched the Oscars, marking the lowest ever ratings in the show’s history with close to a 60% drop-off from 2020’s number of viewers. The Grammy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards also faced a significant decline in 2021, with an over 50% decrease in viewership from 2020.
The music professor explained how social media may contribute to the decrease in awards show interest, since people have started consuming media differently over the past five to 10 years.
“As social media has risen, awards shows generally have declined because award shows represent a very top-down structure. ‘We, institution, will tell you, customer, what it is that you should like,’” said Howard, describing the recent changes in attitude among modern audiences. “Now, that’s been inverted, where it’s ‘we, customer, will tell you, institution, what we like.’”
Howard concluded by mentioning that while the celebrities continue to uphold the institution’s sentiments, the world is no longer interested in this framework.
“The problem is, the big stars are completely dependent on the institution, so they have to play along with the charade that is totally self-congratulatory and totally divorced from any type of reality in order to keep the gravy train going,” said Howard. “People, frankly, do not care.”
However, the academy seems to have accounted for social media’s impact, as they now incorporate it through Twitter polls and invite TikTok creators to host and attend the ceremony.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences partnered with Twitter to have fans vote on their favorite films released in 2021 using the hashtag #OscarsFanFavorite. Zack Snyder’s thriller “Army of the Dead” won the #OscarsFanFavorite title. His cut from “Justice League” won #OscarsCheerMoment. Will Packer, the ceremony’s producer, said the fan voting “creates a two-way dialogue and is more inclusive because the Oscars always felt so stuffy and one-percenter.”
This, along with partnering with Tiktok creators, were some of the ways the Academy tried to cater to younger viewers’ consumption of social media content. But this leads to a question: do these additions affect the overall esteem of the show?
Elizabeth “Betsy” Walters, a Ph.D candidate in the American and New England Studies Program (AMNESP) at Boston University focusing on media studies, talked about this inclusion, saying the intent to draw in younger views plays into the “idea of prestige.”
“There are a lot of people who are saying let the Oscars just be for people who love movies who are invested in these movies and stop trying to … dumb it down,” said Walters.
Walters said that while she understands those sentiments, it would affect the relevance of the awards show to an increasingly modern audience and hurt its already dwindling popularity.
“It’s kind of trying to split the baby a little bit and I don’t think they’ve come up with a good formula yet because people who love the Oscars are upset that they’re dumbing it down or diluting it,” said Walters.
Another awards show that saw a small increase in viewership was the Grammys. Early reports indicate the 2022 Grammys saw a slight increase from 8.8 million viewers in 2021 to 8.9 million viewers this year.
Recently, awards shows have declined in popularity. Last year, only about 9.85 million viewers watched the Oscars, marking the lowest ever ratings in the show’s history with close to a 60% drop-off from 2020’s number of viewers. The Grammy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards also faced a significant decline in 2021, with an over 50% decrease in viewership from 2020.
Almost every awards show, including the American Music Awards and the Billboard Music Awards, has faced a steady decline in viewership since around 2012, and there is no indication that things will change for the better in the coming years.
From the red carpet pre-shows to the anticipation for the major award announcements, these shows used to draw audiences in from beginning to end. Now, people are finding it less appealing to sit around for three hours and watch them for a number of reasons; one major reason being that these shows have been criticized by the celebrities and their fan bases alike.
When the nominees for the 2021 Grammy Awards were announced in November 2020, R&B singer Teyana Taylor tweeted, “Y’all was better off just saying best MALE R&B ALBUM cause all I see is d*** in this category,” in response to not one female artist being in the Best R&B Album category. The following month, Taylor announced her retirement from the music industry altogether. Many of her fans directly blamed the Grammys and other music award shows, because they did not recognize Taylor’s artistry.
Taylor is not the first, the only, nor the last artist to call out the Grammys for snubs. After not receiving a single 2021 Grammy nomination — despite dominating the charts with his studio album, “After Hours” — singer The Weeknd called out the Grammys in a tweet saying, “The Grammys remain corrupt.” A number of fans responded in support by denouncing the show.
The 2022 Grammys audience of 8.9 million viewers means it increased from a record-low audience of 8.8 million in 2021. The 2020 Grammys — the last edition before the COVID-19 pandemic — reached an audience of 18.7 million. Since 2000, the Grammy Awards’ largest audience was 39 million in 2012, according to Statista.
Music’s biggest awards show suffered three year-to-year viewership dips greater than 5 million people in the last decade. The first came after its record-high in viewership of 39 million in 2012, when it fell to 28.4 million in 2013. The viewership total fell by just over 6 million from the 2017 audience of 26 million to the 2018 audience of 19.8 million. The pandemic saw its viewership halved as it dropped from 18.7 million to 8.8 million.
The Oscars tell a similar story: audience totals decreased in six of the last eight years. The final edition pre-pandemic reached an audience of 23.6 million — its lowest since 2008 — but 10.4 million watched the awards during the pandemic in 2021.
The 74th Emmy Awards are set to premiere in September 2022. Last year, the show attracted 7.4 million viewers, a slight increase from the previous two years’ decline of roughly 4 million views since 2018. In the past decade, the highest viewership occurred in 2013, with 17.6 million views. The last time the show saw similar numbers was in 2006, when it held an audience of 16.2 million.
Perhaps the awards show with the lowest total viewership, the Critics Choice Awards got 1.1 million views in 2022, nearly equaling its pre-pandemic audience of 1.2 million in 2020. The show experienced a roughly 22% drop in total viewership before the pandemic even started.
As awards shows continue to fluctuate in viewership, Marni Zelnick, assistant professor of film and TV at BU, wonders whether awards ceremonies should care about television viewership numbers. Pointing out how awards such as the Pulitzer Prizes, or the John Newbery Medals don’t warrant a television audience, she said that awards ceremonies shouldn’t worry too much about their television viewership.
“I think because of the interest in celebrity and the spectacle of the Oscars, there’s an incentive to televise it. And great, let’s continue to televise it,” said Zelnick. “But does it have to be in competition for the greatest, largest, biggest television audience ever? I think it would behoove us to recognize that the world has changed, and just do what we do best, which is award great filmmaking.”