Public-access prizes

Some kudocasts exist only to be televised

It’s awards season and everyone is on pins and needles waiting for the outcome of the big prizes, like “The People’s Choice Awards.”

Well, not really. The show, airing Jan. 10 on CBS, honors the general public’s favorite film, music and TV stars. In a season filled with prizes, “People’s Choice” is the only show that includes sponsor-pleasing categories like Crest White Strips Fans Favorite Smile and the Nice ‘n’ Easy Fans Favorite Hair.

In the hierarchy of awards, there are the professional prizes held privately (the DGA and Writers Guild awards) and there are the serious prizes that are televised (the Oscars). And then there are the kudocasts that exist for the sole purpose of being televised, as is the case of the 32-year-old People’s Choice Awards.

After serving as a punchline for standup comics in recent years, the telecast has been going through major changes. One of the goals is to re-energize the telecast.

Popular on Variety

Ratings have dipped (from a high of 35 million in 1977 to 9.9 million last year) partly due to the glut of awards shows. So the telecast has come up with a typically Hollywood solution: It got a facelift.

It’s trying to get younger and hipper, with CBS “Late, Late Show” host Craig Ferguson serving as emcee. It’s also got a new voting method (to get away from some esoteric nominations in the past) and it’s gone to online voting.

Last year, “The Passion of the Christ” won for favorite motion picture drama and “Fahrenheit 9/11” was tapped favorite motion picture, though some may be confused by the distinction in those categories.

Those dual wins sum up the awards: kind of confusing (trophies are handed out to favorite male movie star, leading man and funny male star), but the kudos can tap into the public’s tastes in a way that other kudocasts don’t.

Mel Gibson, who was a no-show at the Oscars last year, showed up for “The People’s Choice,” telling the millions who attended his film, “I depended on you, and you were there.” “The People’s Choice Awards” have consistently supported the star: A year earlier, Gibson won as favorite film actor, even though his only bigscreen appearance was in the little-seen “The Singing Detective.”

The Choice Awards has distinguished itself, in part, by sticking its finger in the eye of more traditional Hollywood kudocasts.

“This is a legitimate fan vote,” says Jack Sussman, senior vice president of specials for CBS. “It is not decided in a smoke-filled room by six guys writing for the Barcelona Times.”

Never mind that there were cries on the blogosphere last year of ballot stuffing — organized campaigns to vote, even multiple times, for “Fahrenheit” and “The Passion,” the kind of films that inspired zealous attention.

The biggest curiosity should have been all of the attention “People’s Choice Awards” earns in the first place. Endlessly touted as the public’s chance to influence and decide on a major kudofest, it has no discernable impact on the awards season, nor do its categories even mirror the Oscars.

In a town that takes its awards seriously, this is an oddity. Celebs go through a moral dilemma every year, wondering if they should act surprised or even force some tears, since all of them are told in advance what prizes they’ve won. (That fact is acknowledged in the closing credits.)

The upside is that nearly all the winners are present, or at least send in a taped greeting. The downside is that also-rans in the category never show up, so the viewers are deprived the glory of seeing frozen smiles when someone else’s name is called.

Still, the show has drawn a steady stream of A-listers, and celeb publicists say that it is a good platform for publicity and to be made aware of public tastes outside the Hollywood bubble. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford, among others, have appeared in recent years, along with major TV and music performers, who have their own categories.

And while the show suffered a ratings decline last year — the 9.9 million viewers was its lowest ever — the industry shows few signs that it is going to shun the telecast.

Producer Bob Stivers started the “Choice” kudos in 1975, an era when the public’s thirst for celebrity watching was served by only a few networks and a handful of celebrity mags. (Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd was for years co-host and co-producer, although he is no longer involved in the show.)

From the start, Procter & Gamble has been the show’s sole sponsor, and the democratic nature of the evening was promoted, with stars like Bob Hope and Carol Burnett extolling their crystal Orrefors trophies as prizes from “the people.”

Although schmaltzy, the telecast earned an immediate pickup, and before long it was pulling in more than 31 million viewers, great numbers even in the era of three-network dominance.

It also became important enough as a P&G ad vehicle that the mega-sponsor bought it outright from Stivers in 1982 and has used it as a platform to sell its products.

For more than 20 years, P&G employed the Gallup Organization to select the nominees and the winners from a random sample of some 5,000 people.

But as ratings dropped, P&G and CBS sought ways to make the show more relevant to the times, all the more important with the proliferation of award shows and the unexpected popularity of “American Idol,” in which viewers get to vote for winners by calling in on an 800-number.

So last year they hired new executive producer Carol Donovan and dropped Gallup in favor of Internet voting. The nominees were selected in a process led by Entertainment Weekly’s editors and its 6,000-person Front Row Panel, a pool of subscribers who routinely offer a barometer of their tastes for the mag’s “Critical Mass” column.

Even though 21.8 million voted, ratings fell, which organizers attribute to a general decline in interest in awards shows. It didn’t help that the show went up against “Desperate Housewives,” so this year, the telecast has been shifted to Tuesday.

There also were complaints last year that EW’s selections — nominees like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” for favorite movie and “Entourage” for favorite new TV comedy — were too obscure.

This year EW is no longer involved. Instead, P&G hired web research company Knowledge Networks, which took what it calls a “pop culture-involved sample of men and women ages 18 to 54 to select the nominees.” The respondents were given a set of candidates determined by national ratings averages, box office grosses and album sales, and they had the option to write in their favorites. Again, winners were selected via Internet voting.

The sampling still is not scientific. However, producers believe the tradeoff is that viewers are more engaged in the show.

“I don’t know who can get a perfect system where everyone on the planet is voting. It’s never going to be 100%,” says Donovan.

The rules still allow for multiple votes, just not more than one vote in each category per day. (Polls for most categories closed Dec. 11.) If a fan site is urging people to vote early and vote often, so be it. Organizers aren’t fazed.

“You want that kind of passion,” says CBS’ Sussman. He adds that P&G, not the network, oversees the voting, and the count is subject to an independent auditing system. Other safeguards prevent robotic or automatic voting, he adds.

One might wonder why performers would subject themselves to yet another kudos ceremony.

“Unless they had a legitimate excuse, I would never not send a client who won,” says one celebrity publicist. “It may not be the glitziest thing, but they always get good people.”

With advance notice of wins, publicists say they don’t have much difficulty getting their clients to participate, even if it is still debatable whether it’s really democracy.

“This is their way of empowering the people and making them involved in the process,” says Howard Bragman of PR firm Fifteen Minutes. “But the president should not be chosen the way they choose the winners on this show.”

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