The entertainment industry’s annual awards circuit is over, and the awards shows are the big losers. Ratings cratered. Controversies abounded. And on Monday, NBC announced that it wouldn’t air the 2022 Golden Globes, which the network has rights to televise through 2026.
The ratings for the major awards shows have been trending down for years, but the numbers have been truly catastrophic during the pandemic. Last fall’s Emmys saw viewership decline 12 percent. The number of people who watched the Golden Globes in February fell by more than 60 percent. The Grammys’ audience sank by more than half. And just 10 million people tuned in to the Oscars, a 56 percent drop from 2020.
Certainly, the Golden Globes present an extra set of problems to their business partners. Calling the Hollywood Foreign Press Association a clown show would be an insult to clown shows.
For decades, the organization has come under suspicion of fixing votes or turning a blind eye to bribery attempts. In 2018, Brendan Fraser accused a former president of the organization of sexual assault, but it took until this year, when the man emailed other HFPA members to call Black Lives Matter a “racist hate movement,” for the organization to expel him. Crisis fixer Judy Smith, whom the HFPA hired to oversee a reform effort after the Los Angeles Times revealed that the group had no Black members, decided the body was so completely dysfunctional that she quit in disgust in April.
These public relations disasters gave good cover to NBC, which said in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger statement, “We continue to believe that the HFPA is committed to meaningful reform. However, change of this magnitude takes time and work.” But at bottom this was more of a canny business decision than a moral corporate move. NBC gets to use 2022 to see if other awards shows recover, and to weigh its recalibrated profits against the headaches the HFPA will inevitably cause.
Awards-giving should continue: It’s important for reputable professional organizations to recognize the great work happening in their midst, to elevate promising members of their crafts and honor lifetimes of achievement. But if they’re wise, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Recording Academy and the three television academies behind the Emmys will use this time to consider whether putting on their awards shows continues to make sense at all.
Sure, these organizations are less compromised than the HFPA. Still, they’ve all suffered their share of blowups over diversity, and the opulent Oscars gift bags are grotesque pseudo-bribery of another sort. Yes, the Grammys, alone among these four marquee ceremonies, regularly features some striking performances. But they’re the exception that proves the rule. No one seems to know how to host the Golden Globes, Oscars or Emmys in a way that’s satisfying without being smug, or that plays to audiences at home without denigrating the whole proceeding.
If the audience that remains is turning in for fashion, there are plenty of other ways to see gorgeous people in terrific — or horrifying — dresses and suits. If they’re showing up for the possibility of witnessing rudeness or disaster, reality television is always going to outflank the awards shows on that score. And for all the lofty rhetoric about how important the technical work that goes into art is, the awards shows never really manage to explain those contributions well, anyway.
When I argued last year that the Oscars ceremony be canceled in the face of the ongoing pandemic, fellow critics said I was making a mistake. Canceling the Oscars would deny attention to smaller, more deserving films. A shutdown would strip hard-working below-the-line artists of recognition they deserve. And it would deny the public an entertaining spectacle at a moment when diversions were scarce.
Those hopes were in vain. Despite having greater-than-ever access to most of the major contenders on streaming platforms, audiences barely knew the movies in competition existed. The ceremony was a flop as a pitch for the greatness of cinema. And most of all, the audience that was supposed to be served by Hollywood’s big night voted with their remotes, or their gaming consoles, and didn’t show up at all. The winners might as well have gotten their Oscars by mail.
For a long time now, these organizations have been able to sustain the self-delusion that their awards dinners are really for the fans. This year, that fantasy finally proved untenable.