Despite all the controversy surrounding the 88th Academy Awards and the pitch-perfect monologue delivered by Chris Rock, the ABC broadcast reached 34.4 million people, the lowest viewership since 2008, when Jon Stewart hosted and No Country For Old Men won Best Picture.
Millions of dollars are at stake for networks and marketers, since the Oscars historically have charged a premium over the Super Bowl when it comes to cost-per-second of advertising.
This is the latest turn in the downward spiral of broadcast television, which has experienced annual drops in viewership because of widespread DVR recording and streaming services like Netflix (NFLX). To lure advertisers, the big networks are now hopelessly dependent on event programming like the Oscars or Super Bowl.
But the networks’ event-programming strategy is becoming less viable for three reasons:
Social media is a ratings killer.
Take this year’s BAFTA ceremony, the British equivalent of the Oscars closely watched by movie buffs around the world. Like the Golden Globes, the BAFTA program is typically more irreverent, more diverse, and less bloated than the Oscars. But this year its ratings plummeted to a six-year low after the BBC delayed the broadcast until after the live ceremony, so social media sites were already buzzing about the winners before the show aired. Gone are the days when we all watched at the same time and talked about it the next morning around the water cooler. Now social media is the water cooler.
Award shows are becoming more predictable and less shareable.
There’s also a cultural component to this entertainment ennui that is getting overlooked. Consider that the day-after buzz around the Grammys centered on the riveting performance by the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton. When was the last time a Broadway musical became the most talked about event at the Grammy Awards, a broadcast known for its outlandish costumes, petty feuds, and Twitter wars between divas desperate for attention? But that’s the problem. The Oscars and Grammys are increasingly predictable, or at least something we can skip until we catch the highlights on YouTube the next morning.
Fancy gowns on the red carpet? Check. Powerful performance by Lady Gaga? Check. Against that backdrop of perennial events, Hamilton is not only brilliant in its own right, it’s something we haven’t seen before.
And unlike the news that Leonardo DiCaprio is finally getting an Oscar, everything about Hamilton is fresh and shareable. A wholly original play created by Lin Manuel-Miranda, it’s a beautiful collision between rap battles and musical theatre, a comedy and tragedy that turns forgotten American history into a modern reflection of our national identity. Those who’ve seen it feel in the know, and those who haven’t want to know more—the perfect formula for social media.
No matter where you look on social media, everyone is talking about Hamilton. The soundtrack has dominated music charts, and with tickets sold out six months in advance and the show currently only in New York, scalpers are charging as much as $1,500 per seat.
In a social world in which a tragic number of people feel their very existence depends on their ability to share something new, was anyone surprised DiCaprio won best actor, which he not only deserved for his performance in The Revenant but also for a lifetime filmography? Not very shareable news, and none of the other nominated films were blockbusters, which meant only film fanatics had seen more than one or two because movie theater attendance is at an all-time low. Behavioral changes brought about by Netflix, HBO Go, and every other movies-on-demand service are here to stay, and there’s no going back.
Politics is now entertainment.
Part of the appeal of Hamilton is that it gives a rare glimpse at the fiery debates that forged our nation. But this year you don’t need Broadway tickets to watch pugilistic politicians debate the future of our country.
Let’s face it, whatever Donald Trump says next is bound to be more unexpected than any movie star’s acceptance speech. Which is why the presidential debates have been a ratings bonanza for the networks.
Sure, the Oscars still get much higher ratings than a single political debate, but the trend lines are moving in opposite directions. While viewership of the Oscars has fallen each year, each of this year’s GOP debates are getting three to four times as many viewers as they did only four years ago in 2011.
Somehow given all that’s at stake in the world and at the polls, watching a bunch of people on the red carpet pat each other on the back doesn’t seem that relevant. The presidential primaries have Americans finally talking to each other about things that matter, while awards shows are really just a bunch of people talking to themselves.
For better or worse, this year’s elections are turning out to be a lot more unpredictable and entertaining than the Oscars.