Award Shows: No Longer Winning Viewers

Viewing habits are changing more in our culture than just award show ratings.

Nobody watches television award shows anymore.

This probably won’t surprise Singaporeans, since time differences would mean sitting in front of the television on Monday morning to catch them. Unless we’re talking about football fans, no one calls in sick for TV. But the overall numbers have been dire for years, and award shows seem to be losing their appeal.

Viewership for this year’s Academy Awards ceremony (Oscars, if you nasty) dropped by 4 per cent from the previous year. The 2017 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) hit an all-time low of 5.4 million viewers, compared to 9.8 million just two years ago. And in one of last week’s biggest pieces of entertainment news, the Emmy Awards narrowly avoided matching last year’s record low.

This might seem strange, given that we live in the time of ‘Peak TV’, a term coined to describe the current tsunami of original and prestige shows from the TV industry. In 2016, Netflix alone produced 600 hours of original programming, which equals 25 days of pure, uninterrupted binge-watching.

But the answer is surprisingly simple — streaming and social media habits.

The move to online

Two of the biggest players in the TV industry now are online streaming services —Netflix (Stranger Things, critical hit The Crown) and Hulu (recent Outstanding Drama Series winner The Handmaid’s Tale). And Nielsen, whose ratings are still the standard for measuring TV audience size, doesn’t track online views well.

Its struggle to keep up with online streaming numbers means that a sizeable portion of the audience size goes unrecorded, and we can forget about numbers for illegal site streams. Netflix and Hulu complicate matters further by keeping their streaming service data private.

This means that the falling ratings could just be a sign of people moving to online viewing. We don’t know exactly how many, but given the amount of social media chatter about TV shows, we know that there must be quite a number of such people.

Taking the conversation online is also affecting much more than the numbers.

Changing habits and conversations

With the move to online streaming, and the ease of sharing clips on social media that affords, the function of watching TV shows then changes from personal entertainment to being part of the conversation. Our pop culture conversations revolve around the biggest shows, mainly Game of Thrones, and movies, mostly from Marvel. You have to constantly be in the know about the show of the moment — or just every show, period — to catch all the jokes your friends make.

There used to be “water cooler” TV shows: the must-watch shows that people caught in the evening and discussed with colleagues around the office water cooler the next day. Now, our colleagues are people from all over the world, and our water cooler is social media. In this online space, sometimes those conversations can even come around and influence the show. We’re looking at you, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

As the social discussion takes precedence over the show itself, the “best” shows are less likely to be the most popular, and the critical consensus about any particular show starts to matter less to its audience. You might think, “Why bother about what some crusty old critic sitting in a newsroom has to say about my favourite show?” (Editorial note: ZYRUP consists of a dynamic team of millennials, who do not crust.)

The fall of expert opinion

And you could argue that this has always been the case. For example: Friends. In the 10 years it aired, from 1994 to 2004, the show became a cultural touchstone and its impact continues to be felt in today’s pop culture.

But for all its significance, Friends never achieved the awards dominance of Modern Family (five wins in a row), nor did its cast even come close to the run of Veep’s current Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (six wins in a row). So why would this be a relevant argument now?

In his book Present Shock, renowned media theorist Douglas Rushkoff writes that the Internet has lessened our regard for authority figures.

“The Internet welcomes everyone into the conversation. An op-ed in the New York Times may as well be a column on the Huffington Post, which may as well be a personal blog or Twitter stream,” he says. As the Internet exploded in the late 2000s, so did the underlying indifference to listening to “experts in the field”.

Rushkoff goes on to write, “Everyone’s opinion may as well matter as much as everyone else’s, resulting in a population who believes its uninformed opinions are as valid as those of experts who have actually studied a particular problem….”

While I agree that the waning respect for expert opinion is causing huge cultural problems, especially regarding fake news, I feel condescension seeping through that statement. Of course expert opinion is infinitely more valuable, but we will always need to talk and engage, especially about culture, and admonishing the uninformed isn’t going to help.

Adapting to modern viewers

One of the most common roles that the critic fills is that of a buying guide. We read and listen to critics for either a ringing endorsement, or a flaming hit piece. Time is a limited resource, so sorry lol why should I waste time on rubbish? But critics can also fill the role of a moderator.

Instead of merely telling people what to watch, and instilling a black-and-white opinion of art, why not discuss the shows themselves?

The nuanced discussions so important to art are becoming increasingly rare. In a world where decisions are made based on definitive Rotten Tomatoes scores (which is not to say Rotten Tomatoes is a bad measure; you just have to know what you’re looking at), do we really need more absolute judgements of worth and value?

One of the best ways to start a discussion about the value of art would be to take populist art as seriously as high art. Look at fan sites like Pottermore, and the myriad theories surrounding the ending of Game of Thrones. There is a built-in audience ready to talk at length about what they love.

Revamp the award show

Which brings us back to the Emmys. The TV viewing numbers might be dropping, but social media interaction is growing. People might not care if a show actually is “the best,” but they sure love to talk about what they think should win. Considering the social media interest around award shows, as well as the potential for informed discussions, I have a suggestion to make: Forget about putting on a good show.

Award shows always have a host trying their best to pull off skit after skit so the audience doesn’t doze off in between announcing winners. In light of that, why not reform the award show into an extended roundtable discussion?

Gather a few voters, gather a few critics, let them directly interact with fans over social media, and have discussions over the nominated shows or the huge omissions from the voting body.

Award shows are great; they give recognition to great artists who might need encouragement and validation. But we live in a time when fruitful, insightful conversations are becoming scarce. Let’s take whatever opportunity we have to start them.