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The Award Shows Have a Year 2000 Problem

The Award Shows Have a Year 2000 Problem

Almost 4 million people watched the Tony Awards this Sunday, a 40% increase from last year. Yet that viewership level is less than half of what the show consistently achieved before 2000. At least it's not as bad as the Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys, all of which are at one-fourth their viewership levels from before 2000. 

Some blame the drop on fewer people watching live TV. Or maybe younger people are watching it differently or not at all. Perhaps there are too many award shows. One thing is certain: the decline started in 2000 for all four shows. It was like someone turned out the lights on New Year's Eve, 1999.

Why 2000? That’s exactly when digital culture took hold, and with it, the unintended consequence of dividing the country into two markets, liberal and conservative. The Tonys, Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys naturally drifted to the liberal mediasphere, given the overwhelmingly liberal orientation of performers, the people who work in the industry (as determined by analysis of political donations), and operating mainly in Los Angeles and New York. The result for the award shows is a market half the size it was before 2000, making for a much smaller business. 

The change in the market was swift. In just twenty years, Internet adoption grew from 14% of households to 87%. Mobile phone usage grew from just eleven million globally in 1990 to almost eight billion in 2017. We now consume thirty-eight times the amount of internet data from just ten years ago. When Americans moved online, they also sorted themselves into liberal and conservative markets as a direct result of prevailing financial interests. 

Similar to television and radio, the lifeblood of digital media is impressions. More impressions generate more advertising sales, more revenue, and more profits. Unlike TV and radio, the reach of digital media is far bigger, and the people who develop content online can do it faster, get instant feedback, and push out more of what works. 

What turned out to work in news media, especially in social media, was agitating both sides - evoking an emotional response from news and events. It didn’t matter if the market was liberal or conservative - agitation became a clear financial winner. As Kara Swisher repeatedly says on her podcast, Sway, “enragement gets engagement.” Or, as John Stewart said on her same podcast, “The business model of the internet is arson. You have to go around setting fires.” 

As the New York Times reported, Facebook stopped disclosing which posts reached the most people because they realized it demonstrates how much the platform serves to agitate both conservatives and liberals. But, of course, you can’t agitate both groups with one piece of news - it’s more effective when they live in separate parallel universes. 

Some blame the performers for politicizing the shows, making them divisive from a conservative-liberal standpoint. But the expression of liberal activism is just a symptom - not the cause - of this striking shrinking viewership trend. When talking to people like yourselves, it becomes far easier to voice strong opinions.

Fortunately for the film industry, more than twice as many liberals than conservatives go to the movies - at least before the pandemic. This liberal skew most likely reflects population distribution, with movie theaters located in more densely populated areas. Liberals generally live in cities and inner suburbs versus conservatives residing in exurbs and more rural areas. 

The market for movies, however, is changing. Post pandemic, the movie-going audience will be far more distributed with increases in-home streaming. The market for movies will include more large screen TVs in the exurbs and rural areas, places dominated by people with a conservative worldview. The market is shifting from a liberal skew to one that will be more balanced between liberals and conservatives.

Observers with a more liberal worldview may argue that what they believe is true and right, so there’s no reason to address a liberal orientation of award shows and worry about “the other side.” The people running the award shows may hold a liberal line regarding their brands because of their personal beliefs and what they believe to be right. That’s fine, as long as they are willing to live with one-half the market and one-fourth of the business they once had. Would it be so horrible to try to unite the audience and unite the country? It happened before, with significant business success. 

The curves that shape the award show declines are not all smooth. A few spikes in viewership along the way offer insight into possible solutions for the award shows, even if challenging to consider.

The 2012 Grammys - twelve years into the digital transformation of American culture - achieved a near-record 39 million viewers. Only the 1984 show experienced more viewers. No other Grammys show has passed the 30-million milestone since. Why 2012? 

The day before the 2012 Grammys broadcast, Whitney Houston passed away. In a matter of hours, the Grammys broadcast became primarily about her. Of course, Whitney Houston was a massive star with enormous talent, selling more than 200 million records worldwide. She was the only artist with seven consecutive number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100.

She was revered by so many because her appeal crossed the conservative-liberal divide. She learned to sing in her local church with her mother, a successful gospel singer. Whitney Houston also brought the entire country together for a famous rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at Super Bowl XXV when the country was going through the Gulf War. She also performed in an anti-drug music video endorsed and supported by President Ronald Reagan.

Whitney Houston demonstrated the power to unify the country in her passing when the country was separating itself as a result of digitization. All three cable news networks - CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News - immediately ceased news programming to cover her passing. For hours they aired tributes and interviews to honor her life. If you watched all three networks at that moment, you’d forget that the news networks were liberal or conservative. They all adored her. 

So just as The Grammys were experiencing declines in viewership, the celebration of an artist loved across the worldview divide brought out a huge audience, just as she did in the 1980s and 1990s. Following 2012, The Grammys went from 39 million viewers to almost 10 million.

There’s a similar story with the Tonys in 2016 and perhaps this year. The viewership in 2016 was almost equal to the pre-2000 levels of about 10 million. It was the year Hamilton took 11 awards. As a historical political figure, Alexander Hamilton can attract people from both worldviews. He was known as a conservative but relatively moderate, attracting conservative customers to the show (including, famously, Mike Pence, who was booed by the audience and addressed directly by the cast). It was another instance where the product - in this case, a Broadway play and the award show - appealed to both sides. It’s interesting to note that this year’s Tonys host, Ariana DeBose, is a Hamilton alum. 

Viewers with a conservative worldview, half the market, have mostly left the award shows. Those viewers that remain are often liberal and younger. In 2021, the largest group watching The Oscars were viewers between eighteen and thirty-four years old. For live television, that’s unheard of. Live TV audiences almost always skew older and, therefore, more conservative. So much for the theory that younger people don’t watch the award shows or watch them differently.

The people running the award shows have three choices to cope with this situation. The first is to have separate award shows for liberals and conservatives. Separate Academy Awards for liberals and conservatives. Sound absurd? It is until you realize this is how cable news saved itself - by going all-in on a liberal or conservative audience at CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. They did it to stem an outgoing tide of cable television viewers, and it worked. They made more money as other cable networks experienced fewer viewers and less revenue. It was a financial decision, not an ideological decision. Is this solution likely? Nope, but it’s interesting to think that there are models for it. 

Liberals sometimes point to the Country Music Awards as “the conservative awards show” as if all conservatives listen to country music. But this show has its own problems with declining ratings. Contrary to popular liberal belief, quite a few country music performers are liberal - Johnny Cash, Faith Hill, Willie Nelson, The Chicks, LeAnn Rimes, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw, and more. On the other hand, the people managing the Country Music Awards are conservative, and you often see internal worldview clashes that didn’t exist before 2000. 

The second option is to accept that these award shows will have smaller audiences and, therefore, be smaller businesses. The declines will likely level out because such large portions of younger people still watch them. Of course, you can argue that this group is moving away from live TV with “cord-cutting,” but that ignores the fact that the traditional television networks are growing their streaming audience very quickly. For example, NBC has more than 40 million subscribers to its Peacock streaming app.

The third choice is to re-frame the award shows to attract a broader audience. This means looking at people, business, planning, and communications through a neutral worldview lens to establish a common ground between conservatives and liberals. This re-framing doesn’t have to invoke any politics, policy, or stances on any issues. Instead, it must draw upon ideas, values,  and people that appeal to both groups.

This solution would require performers and award show executives to step out of themselves for a moment to think about how they have possibly lost touch with half the country, half their market, and half their business. The pressure will increase as streaming and broadband grows in the exurbs and rural areas. 

I wouldn’t bet my life savings on this solution happening, given the overwhelmingly liberal worldview of the business itself. Still, it’s a way out that would bring people together rather than continue to divide and amplify divisiveness due to the commercial interests of news, social media, and politicians. It’s an opportunity for them to become more aware of what’s happened since 2000 and how the collateral damage of heightened polarization has turned their business into something very different, isolated, and much smaller. 

Why should you care about any of this? Because the award shows illustrate what can happen to your business when you end up with a market that has one worldview or another - when you think you are selling to a much larger market. Your business can lose relevance with one group by simply not paying attention, leaving you with many theories and no answers about slow growth or no growth. Your product-market fit grows weaker simply because you don’t fit into the lives of half the country.  

You may decide - in your business - that alignment with one group or the other is preferred. That’s your choice if you are in charge. Just know that you are possibly eliminating half your market. The right solution for you is to make your business result intentional - not something that happens at you without understanding. This means evaluating your market and your business from a worldview perspective. Put it on the table to understand your market better, think about it, and talk about it. This doesn’t mean politicizing anything or making anyone mad, but understanding better how your market thinks. You may learn something about your customers, your business, and even yourself.

Originally published in the newsletter Red and Blue Customers

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"Super interesting - a new and predictive way to understand customers."
Mark Staples, Editorial Director
McKinsey & Company