Academy tries to reverse ratings slide

Coldplay and Lil Wayne set to add star-power

It’s a tricky tightrope that the Recording Academy straddles every year: how to negotiate that delicate balance between reaching for the highest ratings and staying true to the integrity and artistry of the Grammys.

Navigation can grow more complicated when the Grammys are under scrutiny following a ratings tumble. Last year’s 50th annual Grammy Awards drew 17.2 million viewers, the third lowest in the show’s history. (To be fair, the ratings were up in 2003, 2004 and 2007 from previous years.) As a reference point, the 1993 Grammy Awards drew 29.9 million viewers.

“You can’t put your head in the sand and say you don’t care about (ratings),” says Recording Acad president-CEO Neil Portnow. “It clearly does matter, and it’s important, and it’s part of the way we run our business.”

Like the Super Bowl, World Series or the Oscars, the Grammys have to play with the hand they are dealt when game day comes. “Every year we have a fresh canvas to paint on, and so many things influence it,” Portnow says, “such as the nominations and whatever else is going on in the world.”

Last year, it was the writers strike, this year — on a much happier note — it was Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration that provided distractions. “We had many, many artists who wanted to be involved in all the ceremonies in Washington,” Portnow says. “It was a little period of time when we didn’t have as much regular access as we normally have (to artists).”

However, any gravitation toward D.C. hasn’t seemed to hurt Sunday’s lineup. Among the performers announced for the 51st annual Grammy Awards are Lil Wayne, Coldplay, Radiohead (in the band’s first U.S. television live appearance since 2000), Paul McCartney (with Dave Grohl), T.I., Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z and Kanye West.

Coincidentally, the two acts with the most nominations — Lil Wayne and Coldplay — are in first and second place for releasing the top-selling albums of 2008. That would seem to be good news; however, the show’s co-executive producer, Ken Ehrlich (with John Cossette), says strong album sales don’t always translate to surging ratings. “The broad television audience doesn’t necessarily cross with popularity of music acts,” he says. “There are music acts that have much broader appeal than the top-selling acts.”

For Ehrlich, conjuring creative collaborations that represent a staggering number of musical genres takes special Grammy magic. “When we put Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang together (for last year’s show), we take two music forms that aren’t mainstream and create a moment that people are talking about to this day.”

However, he admits, “It’s a lot easier to create the kind of Grammy moments when you’re able to promote Beyonce and Tina Turner (together). It’s a little more difficult when you’ve got genres that are not as broad” — and when overall broadcast television viewing and award show ratings in general are sinking like a stone.

In an effort to goose awareness and build excitement for the Grammys, the Recording Acad hosted an hourlong primetime concert on CBS in December that served as a high-profile vehicle to announce key nominations and laud the opening of the Grammy Museum. Previously, Grammy nominations had always been announced in an early morning press conference.

“Grammy Nominations Concert Live: Countdown to Music’s Biggest Night,” which featured performances by Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, John Mayer and others, came in fourth in its timeslot behind NBC, ABC and Fox, and drew around 7 million viewers.

Ehrlich and Portnow are sanguine about the ratings. “That’s 7 million more people than might have known about (the noms) otherwise,” Ehrlich says.

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