Power to the People

The People's Choice Awards are finding new ways to let the fans have their say.

This year, the People's Choice Awards, the only award show where the fans pick the winners and where music, movies and television are honored together, is celebrating a big birthday. Tonight, as the festivities begin at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium and audiences all over the country tune in to CBS to find out which entertainers will go home with the PCA's crystal Orrefors trophy, the ceremony will turn 35 -- and it will once again be broadcast live.

"Last year when the show came around, there was the writers strike," says Queen Latifah, who will host the ceremony for the third year in a row, and who is also nominated in the category of favorite leading lady for her role in Fox's "The Secret Life of Bees." "I basically had to go in there and freestyle the whole show. But there's nothing like the energy of a live audience."

There's also nothing like letting the people have their say.

Driven by the belief that the American people deserved a forum in which to anoint their favorite performers, the late TV producer Bob Stivers hatched the idea for the People's Choice Awards in the early 1970s. Now the PCAs are marching into the future, taking advantage of a confluence of cultural forces, including the dominance of the Internet, the rise of social networking and the fact that the American public has rediscovered its enthusiasm for voting, jamming phone lines during Fox's "American Idol" and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" -- and turning out in record numbers during fall's presidential election.

"Consumer behavior has changed," says PCA president Fred Nelson, "and it works to our advantage."

The rebirth of the PCAs began in 2006, when the voting process, historically done in the form of a Gallup poll, went online with the launch of PCAvote.com. With Gallup, Nelson explains, "It was a phone survey: 'Who's your favorite actress? Julia Roberts? Great.' And she'd end up on the ballot, or she'd end up winning." Instead, online voting has opened it up to "millions of voters across the country."

Then, in 2007, the organization chose to expand PCAvote.com one step further. "We decided, 'Let's take this franchise of entertainment enthusiasts who are used to voting for the show, and let's create an online community where they can weigh in on other issues and have a place to go for the rest of the year,'" Nelson says.

Members, who join for free, communicate about everything from music, movies and television to video games and fashion. They can play pop culture-themed games, win prizes and create their own "Buzz Polls" for other members to vote on -- like "Who should be the evil bad guy in the next 'Batman' movie?" -- or respond to polls created by the organization itself. And for the first time, this year the site's members also chose the award nominees.

"We have 10 nominees per category, totally determined by sales, Nielsen ratings, boxoffice scores, music downloads," Nelson explains. "We send that to our community of 250,000 people. They vote and narrow it down to three, and it's the top three that the whole country gets to vote on."

Among this year's nominees are Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley and Reese Witherspoon, who are competing in the favorite female movie star category; CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and Fox's "House," which are vying for the favorite TV drama prize; and Chris Brown, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley, who are duking it out for the honor of favorite male singer. Those are just three of the awards' 43 categories, some of which change each year to reflect the latest pop culture trends.

"One of the great things about the show is that because it's all about the people and because I don't have to answer to an academy or a critics group or whatever, we can look at what's happening in the popular culture and change categories accordingly," says Nelson, a self-proclaimed fan of all awards shows. As a result, this year's competition includes such categories as favorite superhero, favorite online sensation and favorite user-generated video. And in a marketer's dream, the PCA's 35th anniversary coincides with the 35th anniversary of People magazine, so the two entities have collaborated on a special category: favorite star under 35.

And the PCAs are expanding their influence beyond the awards show and online community, branding audience awards at other award ceremonies -- like the New York Television Festival, the Hollywood Style Awards and the Clio Awards -- as People's Choice Awards.

"I think that people know that People's Choice means that the fans have embraced it and said, 'This is something I'm passionate about,'" says Carol Donovan, who is executive producing the People's Choice Awards show for the fifth consecutive year. "If you can expand that to other arenas, I think it will be meaningful there as well."

The PCA organization has also created what it calls "Influence Partnerships," further extending the reach of the PCA brand by teaming up with other entertainment businesses and ventures, such as Nintendo, the Paramount Vantage documentary "American Teen" and E! Entertainment Television. The partnerships give PCAvote.com members the opportunity "to participate in, vote on and potentially influence things that are happening in Hollywood," Nelson says, such as picking a film's promotional artwork or choosing deleted scenes that appear on DVDs. Members of PCAvote.com even programmed a block of shows that ran on E! this past Thanksgiving. "What's great about this is, for the partner, obviously they're getting early exposure for their entertainment products to a very involved community that not only will be more likely to consume it themselves but also will be influential among their friends to build buzz around a new CD, a new television show or a new movie. And for us it's great because we're delivering on that promise of letting our community influence Hollywood."

Through yet another strategic partnership, the more than 130 million active users of Facebook will also have the chance to make their voices heard during this year's PCA ceremony. The popular social networking site and the PCAs are joining forces to enable Facebook members to post what Nelson calls "fan shout-outs": As winners make their way to the stage, fan messages will appear on the lower third of the TV screen during the broadcast. "(Facebook loves it) because they want to expose the Facebook world to a broader audience," Nelson says, "and we love it because we're tapping into the online community to drive viewership and get people more involved with the show."

People, after all, are the PCA's raison d'etre, and more and more fans are tuning in. Says Nelson: "This past year notwithstanding, because of the strike that affected everyone -- the year prior, we were one of the only awards shows to actually grow in audience in terms of our Nielsen rating." And the number of votes is growing as well. In its first two years of online voting, the PCAs garnered 7.2 million and 10 million votes, respectively. This year, the tally stands at more than 12 million votes, with four categories remaining open until show time.

Says Latifah: "What is more important than the people who support our entire industry having a chance to use their voices, to have their influence over who gets what for a change? Instead of having us all decide it from the inside and just give it to them the way we want to give it to them, they get a chance to have their voices heard, and there's nothing else that does that in the same way."