Awards Shows Need to Come Up With a New Approach, Not Wait for Permission to Return to the Old One: Analysis

Grammy Awards Audience
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

The audience watches a performance during the 51st annual Grammy awards held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2009.

This can be an opportunity for awards show organizers to re-create the format amid the coronavirus crisis.

Awards show organizers seemed unsure of how to respond when Billboard reached out to them late last week for comment on what contingency plans they're drawing up in the event that large gatherings are not allowed for the next year.

Harvey Mason, Jr., interim president/CEO at the Recording Academy, said in a statement to Billboard, "We are of course monitoring this ever-changing situation and considering all possible contingency plans."

A spokesperson for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said: "We are in the process of evaluating all aspects of this uncertain landscape and what changes may need to be made. We are committed to being nimble and forward-thinking as we discuss what is best for the future of the industry."

The Oscars camp's use of the word "nimble" is encouraging, because that's what awards show organizers are going to have to be. If they wait to get an all-clear from city officials saying you can once again stage a traditional awards show inside a packed venue, that could be a long wait.

"It’s difficult to imagine us getting together in the thousands anytime soon, so I think we should be prepared for that this year," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer on The Situation Room last week.

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio told CNN that large public gatherings would be "one of the last things that we bring back online."

Even when city officials do give a green light, it may take a year or two before people feel safe and comfortable going back to the old ways. We all love awards shows, but until people are certain that it's once again safe to spend hours in a crowded venue, they may hesitate.

So should awards show organizers just throw in the towel? Of course not, but they may need to think of a different kind of awards show for a year or two. The Academy of Country Music had the right idea when they put together a low-key show, ACM Presents: Our Country, which aired on April 5, which was the original date of the 55th Annual ACM Awards. (That show was postponed to Sept. 16.) The Gayle King-hosted show was a homespun, two-hour special instead of the three-hour extravaganza it was replacing, but that may have been a plus. Awards shows can sometimes seem a little long and over-produced. These folksy specials are a reminder that sometimes less is more.

Now also lay in a few key awards -- probably not all of them, but some -- and you have an idea of what awards shows may need to look like for the next year or two.

While many awards show organizers have been trying to figure out what to do, several canny TV producers have filled the void with music specials, including iHeart Living Room Concert for America, hosted by Elton John, on March 29; Homefest: Late Late Show, hosted and organized by James Corden, on March 30; The Disney Family Singalong, hosted by Ryan Seacrest, on April 16; and One World: Together at Home, organized by and featuring Lady Gaga, on April 18.

These specials have allowed home audiences a chance to see their favorite stars (and have even given the snoops among us a chance to have a glimpse inside stars' homes). In so doing, we get to know these stars a little better as people. John Legend has his awards prominently displayed in his home. Stars love their pets just like we do -- Shania Twain is affectionate with her horse; Billie Joe Armstrong with his dog. Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello are in quarantine and in love – what perfect timing!

These shows have done well. As The Hollywood Reporter's Rick Porter reported, One World: Together at Home drew 20.74 million viewers in the U.S.

Awards show organizers need to adapt to the new reality.

Why can't the Grammys celebrate the year in music even if there's no public gathering? We've seen that artists can perform on their own, without all the bells and whistles of a big production. Fold in announcements of the winners of key awards, and you have your show. It might not run 3 1/2 hours, but that could be a good thing.

The Tony Awards released a statement on March 25: "We are looking forward to celebrating Broadway and our industry when it is safe to do so."

Where is it written that a celebration of Broadway has to take place in Radio City Music Hall? It could be in the form of one of the low-key specials we've seen in recent weeks, as Broadway performers dip into the treasure trove of Broadway music, with announcements of key winners sprinkled in.

To state the obvious, things change constantly in the entertainment business. Fifty years ago, TV variety shows were popular. (Nine of the top 30 TV series of the 1969-70 season were variety shows, paced by the top-rated Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.) By 1982, when Barbara Mandrell & The Mandrell Sisters ended a two-year run, TV variety shows had run their course, but that was far from the end of the line for music on television. In 1981, MTV debuted, and had enormous influence for the next two decades. There is, and always will be, a place for music on television. But the format and specifics will change over time.

Awards shows have been on the ropes in recent years, with declining audiences for almost all shows. If ratings are basically flat, that's seen as a win. The Grammys have experienced an additional problem in recent years with key nominees who pass on going to the show. Childish Gambino had better things to do the night (Feb. 10, 2019) he won four awards, including record and song of the year, for "This Is America." Drake was a no-show that same night, when he was nominated for seven awards, including album of the year for Scorpion.

The postponements and cancellations caused by the coronavirus pandemic are, at first glance, one more blow for awards shows. But this can be an opportunity for awards show organizers to re-create the format.

Wouldn't it be ironic if these low-key "alternative" awards shows are better-received and draw bigger audiences than the traditional big awards shows? If they are, awards show organizers will have to decide what to do down the line, when they presumably can go back to their old ways. They may decide not to, at least not completely.

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