As anticipated, it was an ugly night at the 93rd Academy Awards.
Viewership of the Oscars ceremony on ABC plunged to below 10 million for a historic low, representing a stunning audience decline of -71.4% versus just 5 years ago in 2016.
Prior to 2020, audiences for some of U.S. TV’s biggest events had already been falling for years. But in retrospect, that was a more gentle decline, one network and academy executives would welcome back in a hurry.
Once COVID-19 hit, a change occurred in traditional viewership patterns. Perhaps aided by audiences turning to streaming during the first months of the pandemic in 2020 and never quite coming back, awards shows that took place in the late summer and fall last year averaged audience declines of -34.2% versus the prior year, per Variety Intelligence Platform analysis.
These declines have exploded in 2021. The five English-language ceremonies taking place so far this year have seen audience declines versus their final pre-pandemic shows ranging from approximately -50% to -70%.
VIP applied the drops seen for these shows to 2020’s audience for the Oscars—23.6 million—and calculated a range of possible audience reductions. In the best-case scenario, if the decline mirrors that of the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Oscars can expect an audience of 11.9 million, which would represent a decline of nearly half of last year’s entire audience. Should the worst-case scenario occur, a decline in line with the Critics’ Choice Awards would see an audience of 7.2 million.
VIP teamed up with leading research firm The Maru Group to ask U.S. adults why they weren’t interested in watching in the week before the ceremony.
Far and away the most popular reason for lack of interest was respondents not caring about the movies or actors nominated. This is a longtime criticism of the Oscars that could be costing the event dearly.
This sentiment was persistent across age groups, with 59% of 18-34s, 48% of 35-49s, and 60% of people 50+ citing it.
The fact that the ceremony is in April instead of February was not cited much as a rationale for lack of interest, which is noteworthy as this is something other networks have turned to in order to explain away the declines they have seen for their own postponed award shows.
Of note, the most popular write-in responses to “Other” were “just not being interested” and the perception that the ceremony is now “too political.”
On top of that, the ceremony is remaining at 3 hours, which one in four of those uninterested in watching cited as a reason for not watching. Speeches too will remain, another audience barrier. Without wholesale changes to the format, it will be difficult to win viewers back.
Maru’s research also uncovered further bad news. All age groups reported higher interest in watching the highlights via social media or news programming versus the telecast. This is one hypothesis VIP has behind the decline in awards show viewership, that increasing numbers are opting out of the actual ceremony in order to watch the highlights of celebrities they like.
This will be difficult to address. The Screen Actors Guild Awards curtailed its 2021 ceremony from two hours to one, and still saw audiences fall by -52.4%. Such a decline suggests this change could be too late, as viewers are increasingly voting with their remotes for content they find more entertaining.
ABC and the Academy attempted to rejuvenate the ceremony, with this year’s producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Cher and Jesse Collins working on changes to the format to make it more appealing. But the much as the Grammys found in 2021, it didn’t help much.
Even in decline, major awards ceremonies will continue to attract audience levels that are higher than the average viewership the host network sees most nights. But the golden age of awards-show viewership, already fading before COVID-19, looks to be over.