The Future of Awards Shows, Part 2: How to Fix What’s Broken

Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images
89th Annual Academy Awards
Matthew Belloni
September 20, 2021

In June, a group of Disney television executives summoned the leaders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for a come-to-Jesus meeting. Academy C.E.O. Dawn Hudson and president David Rubin were on the Zoom, as was Dana Walden, Disney Television’s chairman of entertainment, ABC’s Craig Erwich and Rob Mills, and about 10 others either involved in the annual Oscars telecast or responsible for the revenue it generates. The meeting, which I’m revealing here, was certainly unusual, but it didn’t devolve into a blame game or a shouting match; it wasn’t even particularly tense, says one person who was there. Instead, and perhaps for the first time, everyone was on the same page: It’s now or never. If we don’t fix this show, it will cease to exist

I don’t need to tell you that the Oscars, once the most-viewed entertainment program and the biggest promotional platform for a media product outside of the Super Bowl, is in big trouble. You and I know it; Walden and Hudson know it; stop a dude on the street in Iowa and he probably knows it. Awards shows, in general, and the Oscars, in particular, seem increasingly like an outdated television format, destined to take its place in obscurity with soaps and Westerns.

This isn’t a new issue, of course. A few years ago, ABC agreed to pay about $900 million for another ten years of what it knew was a depreciating asset. But this year’s show created what insiders call an existential moment for the Academy. A record-low 10.4 million viewers, down from 23.6 million last year, and a universally panned production. Sure, Covid tied a lot of hands, and the Academy’s insistence on awarding the non-famous-people categories from the stage essentially turns a live television extravaganza into a tuxedoed version of a pre-K graduation ceremony. But that didn’t excuse the basic production blunders. 


Awarding best picture mid-show to set up the possibility of an emotional best actor finale for the late Chadwick Boseman? Even the C-level awards bloggers knew that Anthony Hopkins had won the BAFTA and there was a real chance for an Oscars upset. (Backstage, an audible “oh shit” was heard when that happened, according to one source.) And in a year when few had seen the nominated films, who nixed the explanatory clips—which could have, you know, familiarized viewers with what was being celebrated—and replaced them with long, pious verbal tributes to the nominees? It’s almost like the producers forgot they were celebrating a visual medium.

With media banned, I watched the April show like a normal person for the first time in a decade, with a small group at the home of Oscars expert Scott Feinberg, and I kept coming back to one question: Why would anyone in the real world choose to subject themselves to this self-important dreck? 

It seems that everyone at that June meeting agreed with me: Planning for next year’s show is beginning now, and, as I revealed a couple weeks ago, there will be fewer categories, a real host, and a general shift from a coronation of the mostly niche films preferred by the Academy membership to a broader celebration of movies. It’s about time.        

Great, you might be saying, go ahead and rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. I wrote on Thursday about all the platform and audience-fragmentation issues that have brought down ratings and relevance for awards shows. And it’s true, improving the quality might not do much until (or unless) streaming services can figure out how to lure viewers to live broadcasts. For instance, producer Ben Winston’s first Grammys, the best so far of the Covid-era telecasts, still dropped in viewership on CBS. 

But the creative execution of these shows is also a big part of their decline, in my opinion. In short, the Oscars, Emmys and most of the others look pretty much the same today as they did a generation (or three) ago. Updating them for the new media ecosystem will require a fundamental reimagining of what these shows are and, importantly, why a normal person should watch them.


This might be hard for industry voters to admit, but it’s pretty clear that modern awards shows should start from a simple premise: Nobody gives a crap about the awards. I know, the purists believe these shows—particularly the Big Four—exist first to honor industry achievement, and second to serve a television audience. Come on. These are live TV shows, albeit with credibility generated from the legitimacy (or at least the perception of legitimacy) of the awards. Sadly, thinking of them as industry events will turn them into exactly that: non-televised industry events. That may be fine for the purists, but it should alarm those who understand the value of mass promotion and cultural relevance.

With that in mind, I polled some forward-thinking awards experts I know and put together this list based on their insights. This doesn’t include my thoughts on the Oscars’ pathetic marketing strategy, and the Academy’s failure to connect with film lovers via social media. I’ll get into that another time when I discuss producer Michael Shamberg’s lawsuit on that very topic. In the meantime, here are seven obvious ideas to help the Oscars (and other shows) now:      

1. Hand Out Just Six Oscars 
Picture, director and the acting categories. That’s it. The other 18 awards should be presented in a pre-show ceremony (like at the Grammys), or on a streaming platform (like what the Tonys are doing this year), and then only mentioned during the main broadcast. Have winners stand and take a bow. This would free up time for an actual show and eliminate the griping among certain Academy branches whose categories are left out; if nearly everyone is booted, nobody can complain. 

2. Hire a Live TV Producer 
It’s so obvious. Filmmakers don’t employ cinematographers to score their movies. Yet the Academy enlists film and TV producers like Steven Soderbergh and Mike De Luca and Donna Gigliotti to maestro a live spectacle? Yes, there are Oscars veterans involved, like director Glenn Weiss, but insiders know the “lead” producer usually calls the shots, and that person should be a real live TV producer.  

3. Give that Producer a Mandate: Entertain Us 
Imagine if a great live TV producer were given two hours of time on the Oscars, a year to prepare, a healthy budget, and unlimited access to talent. I’m not a great live TV producer, but even I can think of things that would generate buzz. How about audience-interaction polls about the best dialogue lines, action sequences or love scenes of the year? The results would be a fun live reveal, maybe with the “best kiss” winners performing the scene live on stage. Or exclusive reunions—if the Friends cast can convince people to subscribe to HBO Max, there’s certainly enough interest in similar stunts for the Oscars. Or maybe get SNL alums to re-enact the “You can’t handle the truth” sequence from A Few Good Men for its 30th anniversary. Or a short sit-down interview with a long-lost star like Gene Hackman. Anything that might get people on social media to say, “Holy shit, are you watching the Oscars?”


4. Show Exclusive Content 
I’ve said this for years, including to Dawn Hudson in person: Give each studio 3 minutes of time. Not commercial time, not pre- or post-show segments, this would be extended time on the show. The only requirement is that each studio must debut a long sequence from an upcoming movie that has never been seen before. Like a crazy Mission: Impossible stunt, or a Wicked musical number, or the first reveal of the new Batman. Then promote the crap out of these segments in the lead-up to the show. The Oscars would instantly be event-ized. If studios fight over the spots, hold a lottery. 

5. Pay a Host 
Nobody good wants to host the Oscars? Ridiculous. Will Smith likes money. Dwayne Johnson loves money. Tina and Amy were paid handsomely to host the Globes. If the Academy and ABC coughed up a few million bucks, they’d get a real star, or maybe an A-list pairing like George and Amal, or Ben and Matt, or maybe, if we’re lucky, Ben and Matt and J.Lo. Hell, Affleck is starring in, and directing, gambling commercials between films. Money talks.

6. Change the Audience Seating 
What do viewers like about the Golden Globes? It seems fun, with celebrities sitting at dinner tables, interacting and drinking together. That’s possible at the Oscars too. Anyone who’s been to the AFI Life Achievement Award gala knows that the Dolby Theater can be reconfigured. When I attend that event, I always go table-to-table to say hi to friends. Most people do. I talked this week with Joey Berlin, who runs the Critics Choice Awards, which is attempting to “replace” the banished Globes this season with the early January date. Critics Choice also uses the dinner-tables set up, and with an increased budget and a new Century Plaza Hotel ballroom venue, it will look a lot like the Globes. (He tried to get the same Beverly Hilton room but was blocked by the H.F.P.A.) The Oscars would need to reduce seating capacity and bruise the egos of people used to sitting in that lower bowl, but so what. And there is plenty of room in the upper levels of the Dolby.

7. Reduce the Politics 
I know, this is the third rail of awards shows, and I risk blowback by even bringing it up. Many creative people, including a sizeable contingent of the Academy, believe they have a responsibility to use their platforms for activism. I understand that. But it’s clear from the data—poll after poll, minute-by-minute ratings and even conversations with normal people—that audiences hate the politics on these shows. It’s not just “half the country,” as people often say, referring to polarization. Even people who agree with the advocacy don’t tune into awards shows to see it. 

The Academy’s own internal numbers for this year’s telecast revealed that tune-in dipped when Regina King began discussing Black Lives Matter during her opening monologue. I’m not saying award winners, or even presenters, should be told what they can’t say on stage. And if ever there was a year to start the show with a BLM statement, this would be it. But producers can approach these shows with an eye toward reducing the overt political content, either in avoiding pre-planned politically-tinged segments, explaining to presenters and nominees the impact of political diatribes on audience retention, or even avoiding presenters who most often use the platform to advocate. Harsh? Maybe. Or we can continue the status quo, and advocate to fewer and fewer people, eventually just proselytizing to ourselves and those who most ardently agree with us.        

All of that brings us to tonight’s Emmys, which very few normal people care about (or are even aware is occuring). I’ve avoided directly discussing how to change this show because it will never really happen until one network feels ownership of its success. There’s a great story from back in 2003, when Chris Albrecht offered $10 million a year (more than double the license fee at the time) to move the show to HBO. Les Moonves threw a hissyfit, threatening in a meeting with the TV Academy that CBS talent would boycott all its events, so Albrecht’s offer was politely declined. That left us with the current “wheel” system, which rotates the Emmys among the four broadcast networks. It has created a bizarre reality where, every four years, a broadcaster is forced to air a three-hour commercial for the ambitious shows on the streaming services that are destroying its business. No wonder the networks aren’t exactly investing in growing the Emmys as a telecast.  

But most of my above recommendations for the Oscars could apply to the Emmys. Boot most of the categories to the Creative Arts show, hire A-list producers and turn the whole thing into a must-watch celebration of TV. These changes may not save from eventual obscurity the Emmys, or the Oscars, or any awards telecast, but at least Hollywood will go down fighting.