It’s been interesting the past week or so reading about the controversy surrounding Chris Rock hosting the upcoming Academy Awards. His frank, no-holds-barred comments were seen in some quarters as attacks on a venerable institution, but truthfully, they were just Chris being Chris. Funny.
Gil Cates’ decision to use him as the host is a wise but chancy move. In my eyes, it is a matter of arithmetic — in this case, the formula being how to soup up the Nielsen ratings. It should well help to attract younger viewers, and the odds of it doing anything more than boosting ratings (i.e. the odds of his doing something that will actually upset the FCC) are slim indeed. It is a wise move in that it is undeniable that ratings have been slipping for awards shows in general, and taking chances is needed to pull viewers back in.
When I first produced the Grammys 35 years ago, we were one of only four televised awards shows. Now there are more than 50, and that they have cannibalized one another in the ratings is hard to overstate. I have no doubt that the big shows — the Oscars, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Emmys — will survive, but many others will become more and more marginalized if not altogether disappear.
After the most recent Emmys ceremony pulled modest ratings, there were rumors that they might no longer televise certain categories in future years, sticking with the most prominent awards. Similarly, Gil Cates’ decision with this year’s Oscars to award some of the prizes to people in their seats or already on stage is an attempt to shake up an old formula. I’m not sure if decisions like these will substantially change the ratings or convert new viewers, but they do go to show the extremes that might be needed. For many years, I’ve been on record as saying that I see the Grammys one day being broadcast from a giant venue such as a football stadium, and perhaps someday it will be. Would that increase Grammy ratings? Hard to say, but it would take a crack at becoming “the Super Bowl of music.”
I also foresee the day where the major awards shows incorporate some kind of interactive element. Many of us have been quick to dismiss the reality television phenomenon as a mere fad, but by all indications it is still going strong. Imagine an online, real-time contest where the winner would get to present the winner for Song of the Year or Best Actor from his or her home. Anyone with a computer and a simple video camera (perhaps even one as simple as the one in a cell phone) could be eligible to win. The technology is certainly there, and it could not only be a good revenue source for the networks, but would likely bring in many new viewers.
Ideas such as these may help the ratings, but even if awards shows do continue to lose ratings, they remain enormous events seen by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. As long as there continues to be good music and good films, there will always be a huge audience ready to celebrate the best of the best.
Cossette produced the Grammys for 35 years. He also founded the Dunhill Record Label, produced the Tony-winning “Will Rogers Follies” and wrote the novel, “Another Day in Showbiz.” He is currently developing a musical based on the life of Woody Guthrie.