How the Grammys Are Coping With Cord-Cutting Millennials & Lower Ratings

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Lady Gaga performs onstage during The 58th Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 15, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

"Music’s Biggest Night” faces what may be an insurmountable challenge: holding on to millennial TV viewers who are cutting the cord in increasing numbers.

The Grammys, TV’s second-biggest awards show behind the Oscars, have managed to retain a relatively stable audience in recent years. But advertiser-preferred younger viewers are becoming more difficult to keep. CBS’ 2016 telecast dropped 10 percent among adults 18 to 49, even as viewership held at 25 million.

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Hardly the only awards telecast to suffer declines -- the Sept. 18 Primetime Emmy Awards had record lows -- the Grammys’ battle for younger viewers is nothing compared with the one waged by the MTV Video Music Awards. In just six years, linear ratings have nosedived. August’s telecast was off nearly 75 percent from its peak in 2011.

But the VMAs have doubled down on attracting viewers on other platforms. “MTV was intelligent in understanding how people are consuming video,” says Sam Armando, lead investment director at media firm Mediavest-Spark Armando. “That’s why you see the big digital play and the simulcast across [Viacom] networks.” (CBS streams the Grammys telecast through its All Access subscription service.)

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Online VMA consumption nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016. And while that’s monetizable, it has nowhere near the power of a live TV audience. Thirty-second spots for the 2017 Grammys are again expected to go for around $1 million. For that reason, CBS brass recently signed a 10-year contract extension that will keep the awards at the network through 2026.

In an effort to preserve its base, the telecast has become reliant on partnering current acts with veterans of the industry.

“I really believe that a younger audience will watch a show that skews older,” says Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich. “It’s more difficult getting the older audience to watch something younger. The perfect combination is when I can cross the demos with the performances.”

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In the short term, the upcoming telecast stands to get a lift when it moves back to Sunday (Feb. 12), while others forecast an even more compelling reason to tune in live: Two of 2016’s biggest artists, Adele and Beyoncé, are expected to go head-to-head for the night’s top categories. “Awards show ratings are often subject to circumstances: who’s nominated, what’s happening around the event,” says Armando. (The 2012 Grammys skyrocketed to a near all-time high, 39 million viewers, in the wake of Whitney Houston’s death the night before the telecast.)

Ehrlich agrees that an Adele-Beyoncé faceoff could be a real boost, adding: “I love the idea that there’s a legitimate horse race about to take place.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of Billboard.

2017 Grammys