Are Award Shows Really Declining in the Ratings?

Are people still tuning in to watch their favorite stars walk the red carpet and take home trophies?

Photo Credit: Mohamed Hassan | Pixabay

Between the constant cries to boycott them and the president's tweets attacking their dwindling ratings, award shows have clearly seen better days. While complaints about the nominees and winners emerge each year, political interference has caused many viewers to tune out entirely. After the ceremony ends and the Nielsen company releases the data, media outlets scramble to tote headlines such as 'worst Oscar ratings' or 'lowest Grammys ever' in an attempt to rack up clicks and pageviews. Although their statements hold true, they merely scratch the surface and fail to address the larger picture. Live television viewership continues to decline at a rapid rate as Americans gleefully cut the cord and switch to streaming service powerhouses like Netflix, Disney+, and Hulu. As a result, it should come as no surprise that these galas reach a new low point each year. With that said, one must observe the trajectory over the years in order to reach a logical verdict. Consequently, taking a look at the primary four award show (Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys) ratings in the 18-49 demographic over a ten-year timespan should clarify any misconceptions. This will explain if these four have actually declined at an alarming rate and if the added factor of politics has caused any disruption in recent years.


 Note: This table shows ratings data from the 59th to the 69th Primetime Emmys. Source: Spotted Ratings

The Breakdown
After a brutal drop in 2007, the Emmys remained rather healthy in both the 18-49 demographic and total viewers. That came to a close when the ceremony took a nosedive for four consecutive years in the Nielsen ratings starting with the 2014 showing. But, when it came to total viewers, the event leveled off and settled in the eleven million range. The 2014 decline appears excusable since the previous show received a massive boost from football. It would have been difficult for it not to fall with NFL assistance out of the picture. Nonetheless, that does not pardon the utter collapse that took place in the following two years. In fact, the program actually had an NFL game airing before it in 2015 and did not rise like it did two years prior. Luckily, the 2017 showcase saw its numbers take a much smaller tumble.

Did Politics Play a Role?

The Emmys did not voice their dissatisfaction for Donald Trump until the 2016 ceremony. That year, the television-based production took its biggest hit in over a decade. The 22% ratings decline it experienced was the most that the gala had dropped on a year-to-year basis since the 2004 ceremony fell 35%. Despite continuing to condemn the president through calculated humor, it had a better hold for the following outing. Due to these conflicting trends, a clear correlation between the calls to boycott and decline in numbers cannot transpire


This table shows data for the 50th-60th Grammy ceremonies. Source: Spotted Ratings

The Breakdown

Two monstrous spikes in popularity occurred during the 2010 and 2012 ceremonies. The former had to do with the show incorporating a tribute to Michael Jackson. The latter exploded thanks to the Grammys paying homage to late singer Whitney Houston. Aside from the catastrophic drop in 2013, the six-decade old music pageant did not take a distressing hit until the 2018 showing. The 60th ceremony collapsed by a whopping 24% in both Nielsen ratings and total viewers. It marked the gala's worst beating in five years. And while the 55th broadcast in 2013 did decline more on a year-to-year basis than the 2018 one (falling 28.4%), there was absolutely no way that one could return to the heights of the Houston-boosted 2012 show. The 2018 outing simply has no excuse for dropping as much as it did.

Did Politics Play a Role?

The 2017 show went after Donald Trump with full force. James Corden, Jennifer Lopez, Busta Rhymes, and more made sure to inject their disapproval of the 45th president into the yearly festivities. Despite the addition of that unfamiliar component, there was a modest rise in both Nielsen ratings and total viewership. During the following year, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton booked an appearance and the Trump jabs ensued. Whether the vitriol aimed at The Donald caused it or not, the 2018 Grammys lost over 20% of its audience and became the lowest-viewed one to date. While lecturing viewers on current issues seemingly hurt the Grammys more than the Emmys, the downturn could also be attributed to other factors like the ones in charge inviting less recognizable stars. Unfortunately, it looks like only the death of an iconic music star could reverse this unsavory trajectory.


Data for the 80th-90th Academy Awards pictured above. Source: Spotted Ratings

 The Breakdown

Arguably the most recognizable awards ceremony, The Oscars had a rather erratic trend from 2008 to 2014. During that time period, the Academy Award numbers spontaneously rose and fell like a politician's approval rating. Luckily for the yearly telecasts, the moments of decline and growth canceled each other out. For more than half a decade, the program never strayed away from the 10-13 Nielsen ratings range. This all came to a deathly halt in 2017 when the ceremony fell below double-digit ratings for the first time. That year, the Oscars took a 13% tumble and pulled in a 9.1 rating in the 18-49 demographic. While the average television series could only dream of such massive ratings, this marked a new low for the juggernaut. More notably, the 2017 showing marked the first time that the program had declined for three consecutive years in the coveted demographic. The following year saw a fourth-straight decrease in viewership. Additionally, it had its largest drop in the ratings in over a decade. While not pictured in the chart above, the 2019 Oscars managed to rise a bit to a 7.7 rating and 29.6 million viewers (Source: Forbes). Nonetheless, even the 2019 broadcast paled in comparison to any airing aside from the 2018 one. Although the American staple commemorates major achievements in the film industry, this is clearly nothing to celebrate.

Did Politics Play a Role?

While one could make the case that the ratings fell due to the general collapse of live television viewing, the violent rejection in 2018 paints a different picture. Even though the 13% drop in 2017 was not particularly abnormal, losing a fourth of its audience for the subsequent ceremony is cause for alarm. Although the inclusion of politics may not be the sole culprit for the decline, it does seem like a convenient factor to put the blame on. Furthermore, the 2017 ceremony was the first time celebrities began to vehemently denounce the current commander in chief during the event. That was also the first year the Oscars slipped below a 10.0 in the Nielsen ratings. Even with the promising rise in 2019, it does seem probable that the comedic insults aimed at Trump pushed viewers to change the channel.


Data for the 62th through 72th ceremonies are pictured above. Source: Spotted Ratings

The Breakdown

Compared to its brothers and sisters in the EGOT family, the Tony Awards never reached the success of its peers in the ratings or viewership department. Like a forgotten stepchild, its numbers have paled in relation to the prosperity of its superior siblings. Even compared to the average scripted program, its ratings would fall into the “painfully low” category. The lone aspect that this showcase has going for it is its stability in the 18-49 demographic.The 2008 edition of the ceremony garnered a dreadful 1.1 rating and 6.3 million viewers. Ten years later, the telecast managed a 1.0 and 6.3 million viewers. Due to the consistent decline in television viewership, a 1.0 in 2018 looks substantially stronger than a 1.1 in 2008. Despite Americans cutting the cord and shifting to streaming, this program has retained its small audience while its larger counterparts have plunged. The Tonys can also capitalize on a major event and generate higher numbers as a result. It managed a solid 1.6 for the Hamilton-based show in 2016. Although it will never reach the heights of the others, the 72-year old series has aged particularly well.

Did Politics Play a Role?

The 2016, 2017, and 2018 Tony Awards waged verbal war on the polarizing president.The 2016 edition saw host James Corden mock Trump, the 2017 one featured late-night host Stephen Colbert taking part in similar fashion, and the 72nd episode had Robert De Niro hurl an F-bomb at the former Celebrity Apprentice host. Unlike the Emmys, Grammys, or Oscars, one cannot misrepresent the data to make it seem that alienating political statements have affected the program’s Nielsen ratings. Even though the 2016 edition poked fun at candidate Donald Trump, it rose to its highest number in 13 years. Although it remains blatantly clear that it surged due to the inclusion of Hamilton, the uptick does show that left-leaning politics did not drive viewers away. The following two shows continued to take aim at 45 and still produced results that were in the same ballpark that the series had resided in prior to the era of Trump. Furthermore, the 2018 edition even saw a small uptick in both viewership and 18-49 ratings. In all, it definitely seems like the added dose of political commentary has not wounded this showcase of Broadway theater.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Final Thoughts

No matter how the numbers are distorted, award shows have certainly seen better days. While some of them may fall from grace at a faster rate than others, most of these events hit new lows on a consistent basis. Nonetheless, a good portion of the blame can fall on the shift from the small screen to streaming services. As the ratings for scripted comedies and dramas continue to descend into anemic territory, it only makes sense that these programs hold no immunity to the hurdles that TV ratings continue to face. With that said, that does not excuse the Oscars or Grammys for taking brutal hits in these demographics. On average, Nielsen ratings fell 11% in 2018 when compared to the previous year. The Grammys (down 24%) and Oscars (down 25%) had declines that more than doubled that. To top it off, both had uncommonly harsh dips when stacked up against past showings. But, none of this holds true with The Emmys or Tonys in that same year. The Emmys (down 11%) had a modest dip while the feeble Tonys (up 11%) managed to rise. Ultimately, instead of letting biased media outlets dictate what the results mean, one should look at the data provided and come to their own conclusion. Award shows are declining but the rate of the decline is what tells the real story. 

What did you think of this article? Do you still tune in to any of these award shows? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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