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Grammys Ratings Woes Worse Than They Appear: A Bad Sign for Oscars?

Bruno Mars’ big night at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards generated plenty of controversy Sunday. It did not generate much interest from television viewers.

In the key 18-49 demo, Sunday night’s Grammys telecast hit an all-time low, according to Nielsen early numbers, with a 5.9 rating. The show averaged 19.81 million total viewers, its lowest tally since 2008. That’s a 24% drop from the previous year  — the greatest year-to-year declines for the awards show since 2013.

But this year’s ratings slide is more problematic than the one experienced five years ago, and should worry Grammys broadcaster CBS, as well as Oscars broadcaster ABC.

The 2013 Grammys — which suffered a 28% drop, the most precipitous in the last 25 years — was an outlier: It followed the 2012 Grammys, which took place one day after Whitney Houston died in her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. With interest piqued by the unexpected death of one of music’s most decorated artists, a record 39.91 million people tuned in — the most for a Grammys telecast since 1984 and the second most ever. A year later, the 2013 show fell to 28.38 million viewers and a 10.1 demo rating.

Ever since, the Grammys telecast has been on a steady ratings slide, shedding total viewers and demo ratings points every year — to the point that Sunday’s telecast was down 30% in total viewers and 41% in the demo from 2013. The ratings hit that the Grammys took Sunday night was likely fueled by a lackluster field of nominees, with top pop stars such as Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Adele absent from major categories. Mars’ six wins appeared to not sit well viewers on social media, where many expressed surprise that Mars beat out Kendrick Lamar for album of the year. A dearth of female winners turned into a #GrammysSoMale trend on Twitter. Past Grammy winner Justin Vernon of Bon Iver wrote on Twitter of the ceremony, “I’d say move on from this shit show.” The negative sentiment expressed by many online was evident in Monday morning’s ratings.

Other major awards shows have struggled similarly of late. Last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards telecast was down 36% in total viewers and 49% in the demo over the last five years. The Tony Awards, the People’s Choice Awards, The Billboard Music Awards, the American Music Awards, the CMA Awards, and the Academy of Country Music Awards have all experienced similar declines. And most importantly, downward trending ratings have become the norm for what is still the most watched of all awards shows: the Oscars. Last year’s show was down 30% in the demo and 18% in viewers since 2013 as well.

The notable exception to the trend has been the Golden Globe Awards, which has performed consistently since adding a host in 2011, when the role was first filled by Ricky Gervais.

In 2016, ABC announced that it had come to an agreement with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to broadcast the Oscars through 2028 — keeping in place the structure of a deal in which ABC parent the Walt Disney Co. had paid the academy $75 million per year for broadcast rights. The Oscars are an especially important programming element for ABC. With delayed and digital viewing now the norm for entertainment shows, broadcasters are increasingly reliant on event programs to drive live viewership, which is monetized more efficiently than delayed viewing. For ABC — the only Big Four broadcaster without an NFL contract and thus without Super Bowls or playoff football games — the Oscars represent a rare chance to aggregate a large national audience.

But ABC is likely to see diminishing returns as it continues to broadcast the Oscars far into a future that is unclear for linear television. Interest in the entertainment industry’s response to a recent flood of sexual-harassment allegations are unlikely to spike Oscar ratings this year the way tributes to Houston did for the Grammys in 2012. The Globes, where talk of #MeToo and #TimesUp dominated the proceedings, drew essentially the same audience as last year. The 2016 Oscars, aka the #OscarsSoWhite show, saw downticks in the demo and total viewers.

Oscars ratings for years have been weighed down by the Academy’s tendency to honor movies that few television viewers have seen. That practice continues this year, with a best-picture field of “Call Me by Your Name,” “Darkest Hour,” “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Phantom Thread,” “The Post,” “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Crowd-pleasing blockbusters like “Wonder Woman” didn’t make the cut.

With a lack of fan appeal and a gloomy historical trend line, the pressure is on Jimmy Kimmel and the producers to beat expectations and avoid the ratings disaster that befell the Grammys.

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