Awards. Again.

by Michael Abernethy

16 March 2006

Ultimately, ratings for awards shows is a lost cause. With too many opportunities to channel-flip and too many awards shows to choose from, viewers will never watch these shows in the numbers that they once did.

With the surprise announcement of Crash as Best Picture at last Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, the awards season came to an unofficial close. (In reality, it never ends, as campaigning for next year’s awards has already begun.) But it did leave open the door to the massive supporting programming, debates over winners and dissections of every hem and stitch in the attendees’ attire.

Thanks to the now requisite hordes of fashion experts, more people will see what the winners wore than saw the winners win. Ratings for the Oscars showed a drop in viewers, a problem shared by this year’s Grammys, which got its ass kicked by the novices on American Idol. Much has been written in recent years about the failure of the major awards shows to attract viewers, and organizers have done everything short of hiring strippers to do it. To assess their efforts, I sat through the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Grammys, and Academy Awards. I’ll focus on the shows and avoid second-guessing the awards, though I am still wondering in what alternate reality Kelly Clarkson recorded a more deserving pop album than Fiona Apple or Paul McCartney.

This year’s Oscars host, Jon Stewart, was ideal. Though he didn’t accommodate the official theme (“A Return to Glamour”), he did represent the underlying tension of old meets the new (as when in the opening sequence, clips from classic films were combined with a CGI-generated landscape). Stewart’s approach was more low-key than Chris Rock or Billy Crystal, reminiscent of Johnny Carson and Bob Hope, a gentle guide who was also topical and witty.

Stewart didn’t hesitate to ridicule himself (noting he was the fourth male lead in Death to Smoochy) and the Academy (the show would soon feature a montage dedicated to montages). The frequent montage sequences honored the past, and suggested that this year’s nominees belonged in the same heralded company as previous winners. Some were amusing, such as the tribute to “gay cowboys” of days gone by, while others were a waste of time, including the homage to epics, as the Academy has a rather loose definition of the genre, including The Sound of Music.

Still, at three and a half hours, this was a relatively fast-paced Oscars, without overblown production numbers and featuring only three best Song performances. Three 6 Mafia’s performance of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” was the liveliest, while Dolly Parton’s “Travelin’ Thru” was the most enjoyable, as she proved the connection between Southern Gospel and transvestites.

Despite their Oscar win, Three 6 Mafia would have been more at home at the Grammys, crowded as that competition was (1100 nominees representing 30 genres of music competing in almost 108 categories). Among the categories with best album honors are Contemporary Jazz, Rock Gospel, Traditional Blues, Polka, Comedy Recording, Native American Music, Opera, Chamber Music, Music for Children, New Age, and Salsa/Merengue.

But while this suggests the show would resemble a world music festival, rich with variety, this wasn’t the case. Viewers didn’t see nominees Day of Fire (Rock Gospel), Jimmy Sturr (Polka), Lewis Black (Comedy), or Martha Argerich (Chamber Music) perform. They did see Mariah Carey, Kayne West, Jamie Foxx, Gorillaz, Mary J. Blige, Will I. Am, and Ciara, and in case that wasn’t enough flava, Queen Latifah, Destiny’s Child, Alicia Keyes, LL Cool J, and Ludacris presented awards. The assumption that hip-hop needs to be displayed because it sells cds is shortsighted. First, it fails to take into account that these consumers aren’t the type who stay home to watch awards shows. Second, it doesn’t recognize that hip-hop repels fans of other genres of music. Country music and classical music fans changed channels by the time opening-act Madonna finished her first verse.

As always, the Grammys plied a favorite gimmick, pairing two artists (or more) who have absolutely no business performing together, thus insuring that viewers won’t enjoy either act. Ciara and Maroon 5 were forgettable, and CMA Entertainer of the Year Keith Urban deserved better than performing part of his Grammy-winning song before being relegated to singing backup for Faith Hill, who barely acknowledged he was on stage. Worse, performances were hard to see: brightly backlit and surrounded by pyrotechnics, the artists were often lost is a wash of white light. Even Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust” was over-lit, unhelpful for a slow song. Still, the Grammys most often seemed a laid-back party where old friends are reunited and who-knows-what went on backstage. Most of the losers seemed unbothered (though I imagine the limo rides home were more lively: “How many fucking Grammys does U2 need?”).

Also striving for a party atmosphere is the Golden Globes, which is why stars like Harrison Ford, who seemed to be well into his second bottle of wine, appear onstage with drinks in hand. The Globes are dinner and a show. This ensures that winners have to walk through a maze of tables to reach the stage. As a general rule, film stars sit up front at the Globes and tv stars sit in back, so each of the tv winners has a long, tangled walk to make, which doesn’t make for “cracklin’ good tv.”

Nevertheless, the Globes move rather quickly, as do the SAG awards, because neither bothers with a host, teleprompted banter, or musical numbers. Doling out awards, with an occasional tribute or retrospective, these shows end up seeming like a string of acceptance speeches. And that is the glaring fault of all awards shows. No matter how entertaining the hosts, performers, or presenters, the acceptance speeches are more often than not boring as hell. Viewers don’t have a clue about the managers, producers, agents, and studio or record label heads. This is especially problematic with the film awards, as they come in rapid succession. Once Reese Witherspoon thanked T. Bone Burnett, Walk the Line‘s musical director, at the Golden Globes, did she really need to thank him again at the SAGs and the Oscars?

Last year, the Oscars were harshly criticized for not letting all the winners on stage (some were presented their awards while still seated), but perhaps that is the best approach. Announce Gustavo Santaolalla as the winner for Best Musical Score, let him stand up and wave, and spare us the endless list of names he rattled off. There are, of course, some memorable speeches, among them Steve Carell’s amusing speech at the Globes and Clooney’s barbed speech at the SAGs. S. Epatha Merkerson, a winner for HBO’s Lackawana Blues, was funny at last year’s Emmys as well as this year’s Globes and SAGs. But enjoyable or thought-provoking speeches tend to be the exception.

Ultimately, ratings for awards shows is a lost cause. With too many opportunities to channel-flip and too many awards shows to choose from, viewers will never watch these shows in the numbers that they once did. That is not to say the awards shows are useless; sales for most of the Grammy winners took a major jump after the show, and most Oscar winners can count on a boost in box office or DVD sales, even if it is minor. They serve the idea behind the first Oscar ceremony, to gain publicity and increase interest in the industry. A simple, pleasurable show is enough to do that.

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