The premise of award shows is simple: reward those in the entertainment industry who create exemplary work. Yet the world of award shows is often much more complicated than that. Add in label companies or powerful industry titans, and award shows soon turn into popularity contests, appreciating those who have the most connections. Soon enough, award shows become a time for moguls to celebrate each other and only each other. For years, this phenomenon has been accepted, but now, the world seems to be tired of fawning over the same divas.

The ratings for various 2020–2021 award shows were startling to say the least. Many were at all–time low levels or the lowest in the century, and most shows saw a 50 percent fall or more in viewers compared to 2020. It’s easy to blame a lot of different factors that could explain the relatively quick free fall in interest this year. Award shows have always needed to balance entertaining an audience and giving out awards, and without the typical extravagant performances, viewers will inevitably stop watching. For instance, the American Music Awards, where performances generally overshadow the awards themselves, saw a 40 percent decrease in ratings this year. Additionally, while the pandemic led to an overall increase in media consumption at home, much of this change can be attributed to the popularity of streaming services. Live television numbers held steady or slightly decreased, but award shows were at the extreme end of those declines.

To understand the seemingly sudden drops, we must expand our frame of reference to around 2010. Many award shows were experiencing a viewership renaissance during the early parts of the decade, including the Oscars, which consistently had over 35 million viewers each year. After peaking at 43.7 million viewers in 2014, the Oscars faced a continuous decline almost every year since, decreasing to less than ten million viewers in 2021. Given these figures, it’s clear that the ratings in 2021 were not a fluke; rather, they symbolize a trend of increasing disinterest. What exactly went wrong?

Graph courtesy of Statista

One possible answer is that award shows have recently been struggling with their internal voting body, culminating in controversies that have sparked lots of conversation. Viewers have been growing increasingly disconnected with the shows, evidenced by trending Twitter hashtags such as #OscarsSoWhite and #Scammys. This opposition between the Hollywood executives and the general public has necessitated reform. Here are three possibilities that could make award shows more enjoyable and fair for those at home and those in the front row seats.

1. Be Transparent

When The Weeknd was completely shut out of any Grammy nominations last year, blame was cast on secret committees and undisclosed shortlists that have been questioned for years. Most Grammy nominations are done through a popular vote from the Recording Academy voting body, but for the more prestigious awards like the Album of the Year and Song of the Year, small committees listen to the top 20 contenders, discuss for days, and nominate eight of them. In theory, this sounds like a good process, since it allows experts to ensure the nominations are the right ones. In reality, these committees are highly controversial. Former CEO of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan, claimed that they often favored artists that were related to board members, and artists who were ranked low in the original top 20 contender list received nominations anyway The Oscars uses a similar process as the Grammys, but for some categories, the Academy publishes the entire shortlist. This allows everyone to see exactly which nominees were running against the frontrunners, and it ensures a fairer process throughout. The Grammys, however, have elected for even more radical change. Because of the backlash the Recording Academy faced, all the secret committees have been dismantled and have been replaced with the existing popular vote system. Time will tell if this is the right move, but more transparency is always a good thing.

2. Recognize Smaller Acts

Some fan–voted award shows, such as the Video Music Awards, American Music Awards, and the People’s Choice Awards, all feature only the most popular acts. While this may represent the public’s overall interest, it only serves to increase the status of the most successful artists and ignores the talents of artists who may not have had as much experience in the industry. Award shows that focus more on critical acclaim still fail to recognize more niche artists, and if they do, more popular ones tend to receive more support due to having more resources to spend on promotional campaigns. The Grammys have always faced a battle between awarding popular versus well–received nominees, and both sides often end up appearing in the same category. Bar some notable exceptions such as Beck winning over Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran in 2015, the winner usually tends to be the more popular or commercially successful candidate. Instead of concentrating on the big acts, award shows could either broadcast smaller categories or revise their guidelines so that popularity plays a smaller role in the process. 

3. Increase Representation

NBC declined to air the Golden Globes in 2022 due to accusations that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which oversees the Golden Globe Awards, was corrupt and lacked diversity. HFPA members were paid to watch certain films and treated to differing levels of gifts, and the HFPA had no Black members serving on the committee. The Golden Globes was also criticized for its nominees for Best Motion Picture last year. No movies featuring Black directors or protagonists were nominated, even though 2020 was considered a “marquee year” for Black films including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Da 5 Bloods.

Infographic courtesy of Lee & Low Books

To address these issues, the HFPA hired a chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, created an independent, racially diverse board to oversee reform, and reduced committee appointments which used to last a lifetime. This is a step in the right direction and could be a model for other award shows.

It’s undeniable that receiving a nomination from an award show is already a great achievement, and that nominations can be a powerful tool for smaller artists or actors trying to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. However, as shows continue to become more out of touch with their audiences, change must occur. Hopefully, these reforms can allow award shows to achieve their original goals. Will award shows ever attain their past notoriety? Perhaps not—but if they’re ever going to try and get there, they need to better adapt to the circumstances of the world they exist in.