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Why Award Shows Have Low Ratings (and How to Improve It)

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Drake winning Billboard's Artist of the Decade Award (Christopher Polk/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

by Dan Runcie

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Sunday, May 23 was the 2021 Billboard Music Awards, which suffered one of the biggest ratings blows yet for an award show. Ratings were down 36% from October’s 2020 BBMAs, which were already down 62% from the 2019 awards.

It’s not just the pandemic. In the past 15 months, entertainment execs have blamed the pandemic, streaming options, and 2020 election coverage for ratings declines across the board. But those are lazy excuses. Last year’s NFL ratings dropped 14% during the season, and February’s Super Bowl ratings dropped just 9% from 2020. The better question to explore is how the NFL kept most of its audience and award shows haven’t.

Award shows sell what happened, not how it happened. And “what” is easy to disrupt. I can read tweets and posts on each winner from various accounts. If there’s a noteworthy clip, those accounts will share it. Fans can stay up to date and join the commentary without turning on the TV.

Meanwhile, NFL viewership is high because the experience is to see how each play breaks down. Fans can still get the “what” score updates anywhere, but apps can’t replace live viewership.

Broadcasts are made for the industry, not casual viewers. Entertainers win awards, thank people you’ve never heard of, and get awarded in categories with confusing distinctions. Do most people understand “song of the year” vs “record of the year”? Or sound editing vs sound mixing?

The “niche” audiences that watch award shows in a post-pandemic world fall into two groups. They’re a) those who work in the industry or b) nerds like me who can recall past winners from random years. These broadcasts were never built for casual viewers, but the current media landscape has highlighted the disconnect more than ever.

Learn from American Idol. Twice as many people watched American Idol than the Billboard Music Awards that night. Idol, which hasn’t produced a household name in over a decade, lapped the BBMAs like Captain America yelling .

The music competition show is no longer the rating juggernaut it was in the Simon Cowell days, but it’s a broadcast built for casual viewing.

Build a connection, up the stakes. Before an American Idol singer’s audition, there are those 3-min background stories on that person’s life. Viewers build emotional connections, which increase the stakes. NBC’s Olympic coverage is also great at this. I’ll hear a touching story about a rower who sacrificed it all to make it to the summer games, then I’ll start cheering like crazy for them to win.

But there’s none of that in award shows. In March, Beyonce broke the record most awarded singer in Grammys history. But all we got was that that took some shine away from Megan Thee Stallion’s win. Imagine if Beyonce’s potential win got same the coverage that Tom Brady got on potentially winning his seventh Super Bowl and first outside of New England?

There’s a huge opportunity to improve award shows. These shows will never regain their late 2000s ratings dominance, but more can be done to slow the drip.

For more, check out this Twitter thread from media analyst Matthew Ball.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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