How Our Year of Isolation Changed Entertainment

Staggeringly low ratings from the Grammys and Golden Globes prove the traditional mass-audience awards spectacle is over

Trevor Noah at the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Los Angeles Convention Center on March 14, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

If an organization started handing out trophies for the most astonishing collapse in cultural relevance, this year’s top prize would have to go to — awards shows. The ratings plunges for recent awards shows are staggering, suggesting a major turning point for a ritual that has been vital to the business of entertainment for decades. At long last, it appears the traditional mass-audience awards spectacle is over.

This week’s CBS broadcast of the Grammys is the freshest example. The ratings fell a stomach-churning 51% from last year to a record low 9.2 million viewers who tuned in or streamed the broadcast. (The prior all-time low, in 2006, was 17 million TV viewers.) Incredibly, the ceremony wasn’t even in the highest-rated show of the week, coming in second behind an episode of NCIS. This ratings humiliation came just weeks after a similarly gruesome showing from the Golden Globes, whose audience shriveled by 62% to a measly 6.9 million — its smallest ever by a long shot.

The collapse of the awards show is a side effect of a bigger shift that, as the cliché goes, happened gradually and then all at once. It’s been a generation since cable and the internet began eroding the mass-market paradigm that coaxed society to turn its cultural gaze in the same direction at the same time. Entertainment became more about infinite choice serving niche audiences on their own terms: My Spotify or Netflix experience may have no overlap with yours at all, and that’s the point. Rapidly expanding new entertainment forms like live streaming, massively multiplayer online video games, and TikTok just underscored that shift.

Along the way, the role of the awards show specifically as a campfire for the culture to gather around has been undermined by audiences’ impatience and disgust with ongoing under-appreciation of minority and female cultural creators. Add to that the dated and stuffy awards show format, established decades prior when producers could expect tens of millions to tune in to watch a several-hours-long ceremony.

It seemed that some of these broadcasts had made progress with the format issues at least — critics actually praised this year’s Grammys as a surprisingly successful production — and you could make an intuitive argument that 2021 should have been a much better year for awards shows: Pandemic isolation had more of us binging on digital entertainment than ever, craving any excuse for virtual gatherings and shared experiences. The ultimate captive audience.

Instead, what lockdown culture revealed — all at once — is that our interest in virtual gathering depends on real-world interpersonal ones: the watercooler chats, the dinner parties, the random interactions in bars and on beaches that quietly fuel our interest in what everybody else is consuming, and how that informs what we want to cheer for or root against as the recipient of some culturally sanctioned prize.

The final collapse of the awards show as a cultural campfire shows how a year in isolation taught us that we don’t really care what everyone else thinks is the must-see movie or the song of the season. For better or worse, we’ve learned to entertain ourselves.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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