TV Long View: The Oscars That Marked Broadcasters' Last Blast

Ellen Selfie Oscars 2014 - Getty - H 2020
Ellen DeGeneres/Twitter via Getty Images

This was going to be a column about the ratings ups and downs of the Oscars, which, after their 2010s peak in 2014, suffered a four-year decline before stopping the slide last year.

Then, looking at the performance of other big awards shows over the past decade, a pattern emerged: All the big kudocasts — the Grammys, the Golden Globes and the Emmys, in addition to the Oscars — had their largest or second-largest audiences of the past 10 years in the 2013-14 season.

Zooming out further, The Walking Dead hit its ratings apex with its fourth season in 2014-15 — which was also the year of Empire's meteoric first season, the last time a broadcast show started big and kept growing throughout its inaugural run. The Super Bowl drew its biggest audience ever in February 2015, and the NFL had its most-watched regular season of the decade the following fall. The 2015-16 season was also the last time any broadcast series that wasn't Sunday Night Football averaged 20 million viewers per episode (including a week of delayed viewing).

In hindsight, it seems more and more like those couple of years were the last high-water mark for ad-supported television. Individual shows and franchises have continued to thrive, but the totality of traditional TV hasn't had it nearly as good since then.

To be sure, the signs of linear TV's decline were there well before the middle of the 2010s.

The awards shows of 2013-14 may have been the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. The 2013-14 season saw nearly 80 percent of broadcast series decline among adults 18-49 vs. the previous year — which itself had brought ratings dips for most shows.

Streaming platforms, however, had not yet become a major factor in original programming. By May 2014, Netflix had debuted only a half-dozen original series. Hulu had made about a dozen, only a handful of which were ongoing by that time, and Amazon had just two.

That left a lot of room for programming on traditional TV to thrive — The Big Bang Theory, for instance, averaged better than 23 million viewers that season — and awards shows were at the leading edge. The 2013 Primetime Emmys kicked off the season with nearly 17.8 million viewers on CBS, a 34 percent jump over the previous year and the largest audience for the awards since 2005.

A few months later, the Golden Globes (20.87 million viewers) and Oscars (43.74 million) each hit 10-year viewer highs. The Grammys (28.5 million) had their second-largest audience since 1993 — behind only the 2012 show, whose ratings were heavily influenced by tributes to Whitney Houston during the show following her death the day before.

The Oscars, Grammys and Globes remain among the biggest entertainment shows on TV each year, but the first two have declined by about a third in viewers since their 2014 highs. The Globes have been somewhat more resilient, but the 2020 kudocast drew 12 percent fewer people than in 2014.

And the Emmys? Ouch. The September 2019 awards show came in just under 7 million viewers, 61 percent lower than the 2013 high.

Broadcast TV as a whole has come down a good amount in recent years as well, though not quite as steeply as the awards. In 2015-16, the last time any entertainment show (The Big Bang Theory and NCIS) averaged 20 million viewers in seven-day ratings, all programming on the broadcast networks, including The CW, averaged 7.18 million viewers. This season, primetime shows are averaging 6.28 million viewers, a drop of 12.5 percent. The decline in the key ad demographic of adults 18-49 is even steeper; it's down more than 31 percent from four seasons back (1.9 to 1.3).

Four years ago, 35 network primetime series (not including NFL pre- and postgame shows) averaged at least 10 million viewers. This season, not quite half as many shows — 17 — are above that line.

Which is not to say people have altogether stopped watching ad-supported TV. As this column has noted several times before, longer looks at delayed ratings and multiplatform viewing very much shows that people are still watching top network shows in pretty large numbers. But that viewership is fragmented, watching on its own time and not necessarily through the ad-supported apparatus that has kept the business rolling for decades.

The 2014 Oscars ceremony featured the star-studded Ellen DeGeneres selfie that set social-media records, a best picture win for 12 Years a Slave and seven statuettes for Gravity, the biggest box-office hit among the main contenders. No one knew it at the time, but it was also maybe the last network show not taking place inside a football stadium to draw a crowd that big.