Awards shows' slip is showing

Emmys, Oscars suffer as viewers shun telecasts

NEW YORK -- Are televised awards shows dying?

Laurence Mark and Bill Condon hope to reinvigorate the Oscar telecast both creatively and with viewers, but with the Emmys and Oscars hitting record lows this year, the producers face more daunting questions.

The lack of broad hits and stars, the ease with which highlights (and lowlights) are later watched on YouTube and the proliferation of awards shows themselves all have taken their toll. And execs and producers privately question whether the broadcasts can be sufficiently adjusted to bring the big-ticket shows back to respectability.

"There's a fine line between maintaining the dignity and value of the awards shows as they exist and making them accessible and entertaining to a larger audience," said Gil Cates, who has produced 14 Oscarcasts, including the Jon Stewart-hosted show in February. "On the one hand that's total bull, but on the other it's totally accurate."

The stakes are high for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which now has to go into its next negotiations in 2010 with adjusted expectations, particularly as a result of ad spending. For instance, GM in August dropped out of advertising on both the Emmys and next year's Oscars.

Ratings have slid all across the television dial as audiences have become more fragmented, but the major awards telecasts are down even by those adjusted standards. While most live and scripted programming has fallen by percentages in the high-single or low-double digits, in the past three years the Emmys has lost 35% of its audience while the Oscars has lost nearly 25%.

The days when the Emmys would regularly reach 20 million viewers -- as they did four times between 1994 and 2000 -- are long gone.

The ability for viewers to cherry-pick the best clips online has meant they don't need to sit through three or four hours of a broadcast as they once did.

And producers' ability to spruce up the whole broadcast is fraught with problems. Mature telecasts such as the Oscars and Emmys face an almost unresolvable dilemma: They're criticized for being too stodgy in the online-video age, but they're reluctant, perhaps understandably, to give up traditional elements for fear of alienating their core audience (and traditionalists).

"It may be time to acknowledge that the whole car is broken and changing one or two tires isn't going to make much of a difference," one awards show insider said.

But beyond the minute-by-minute choices in a telecast, the question is how much any tweak can change the outcome. Many pundits, for instance, tend to emphasize the host -- this year has brought questions of whether Mark and Condon will go for an unconventional choice, with Ricky Gervais' candidacy promoted in several quarters -- but the reality is that the popularity of the host is rarely correlated to a ratings bounce or dip. It's questionable even how much an uber-star like Will Smith, who insiders say has turned down requests to host in the past, would move the ratings needle.

Still, there's some evidence that it's the ebb and flow of the production itself -- and not the idea of an awards show in general -- that's turning off viewers.

This year, the Emmys garnered decent numbers for the first hour but saw viewership drop or stay flat in the two hours that followed, perhaps a result of questionable production values chasing away viewers. Last year's show, which was better received, grew by almost a half ratings point between the first and second hour.

Producers also note the external competitive that awards shows face.

"The Emmys in particular have never been up against football (on broadcast) until two years ago," said Ken Ehrlich, who produced this year's show. He added that, contrary to its critics, he was "very proud of what the show had," with appearances from the likes of Josh Groban and Oprah Winfrey and even the decision to use reality TV hosts.

"We were trying to tap into what we thought would bring in more viewers," he said. "Did it succeed? Obviously it didn't. But I'm glad we made the attempt."

Many who produce awards shows say there's room for meaningful changes. Mark said he and Condon hope to broaden the audience by acknowledging the films that have attracted moviegoers in the past year, bridging a gap between the little-seen films that often dominate the Oscar races and the tentpoles that rule the boxoffice.

"There's only so much one can do," Mark said. "But within that context there are variations on a theme. There is a way to honor all the movies of the year, not just those that are nominated."

Others suggest that producers and networks have potential improvements at their disposal -- but only if significant changes happen at the governing awards bodies first.

"The (awards organizations) have to reassess the number of awards and how they're given," Cates said.

There is hope in the fact that awards telecasts are not suffering across the board; the problems seem to be afflicting top-tier shows. Other broadcasts have shown big gains, growing large enough that relative newcomers now compete with warhorses including Oscar and Emmy.

Nearly twice as many people watched the MTV Video Music Awards this year as the Emmys, and even the Academy of Country Music Awards in May had numbers nearly equal to the Emmys, racking up 11.7 million total viewers to the TV kudos' 12.3 million.

Which means that for all the talk about changing the hosts and the format, the cure just might be a lot simpler: more Taylor Swift and Toby Keith.

Gregg Kilday in Los Angeles contributed to this report.