Holzer: No Host? No Problem.

In their fight against falling ratings, awards shows have sacrificed their integrity.

by Emory Holzer | 1/10/19 2:20am

The Golden Globes began with an unexpected change in direction Sunday night. After two years of programing consumed by commentary — on topics ranging from sexual assault to immigration to the 2016 election — the show had begun to steer its reputation from drinking celebrities and casual festivities to a deeply political awards show. But Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh, the evening’s hosts, set the tone of the 2019 ceremony from the get-go as apolitical. This transition back to the Golden Globes’ original identity underscores a broader shift in the awards circuit. In a world where live awards shows are no longer the ratings juggernauts they once were, producers have to make a decision: embrace the reality of live entertainment today or try to fight their way back into a lost past. Unfortunately, they haven’t had much success with the former, and aren’t likely to achieve the latter.

Since 2015 saw the duo of Amy Pohler and Tina Fey as hosts, the Golden Globes have struggled with viewership. This, though, is not exclusive to the ceremony. From the National Football League to the Oscars to the Grammys, live programing has struggled to achieve the ratings it once saw despite adjusting the level of politics, cycling through different hosts, creating new awards and making efforts to shorten runtimes. In today’s digital landscape, saturated with limitless on-demand content, viewers appear to be less likely to tune in to live television. 

Faced with four consecutive years of steep ratings decline, ABC, which has an exclusive contract with the Oscars through 2028, pressured the program to address this nosedive in viewership. In late 2018, the program announced drastic structural changes. By introducing a category to award the year’s best blockbuster film and tightening up the run time from four to three hours, the Academy sought to recapture a young audience that has been largely shrinking. 

Further, ABC booked popular actor Kevin Hart to host the ceremony. However, after controversy surrounding the comedian’s past homophobic comments on Twitter resurfaced, Hart resigned. And now, with less than two months until the ceremony, the Oscars have no host. Hart’s willingness to abandon his emcee position and the Academy’s ongoing struggle to procure a willing host for this year’s Oscars highlights Hollywood’s negative association with the role. Once a great honor, hosting the Oscars seems to present a burden today, with little opportunity for payoff and every opportunity to be blamed for the show’s falling ratings. The Academy is seemingly unable to muster anyone to subject themselves to a media flaying at the center of a sinking ship. At the Golden Globes, this vacancy felt like a looming presence, signifying a dying world of awards show pomp and circumstance. After consecutive years of controversy, the shows no longer have the magic they once had. Dark details about sexual assault, homophobia and racism have haunted Hollywood, its awards shows and their hosts. 

But a ceremony without a host could be an opportunity to catalyze a much-needed change in the show’s format and tone that would mirror the drastic change in the media landscape. Instead of chasing better ratings, the Oscars should focus on adhering to their original purpose: honoring achievement in film. The idea of the Oscars as a ratings juggernaut has sunk. But film itself has not, and, with more independent films winning accolades today, the awards are more pertinent than ever as a means of providing these films with the recognition they deserve.

The evolution of media has been accompanied by a burgeoning of options. This is the generation of choice. With thousands of programs at the fingertips, viewers no longer watch a program just because it is on. In a world without streaming services, people turned on the Oscars because it was the prime programming that night. Now, though, entertainment has become more niche as audiences only click play on shows they choose to watch. Although the Oscars raked in an all-time low of 26.5 million viewers in 2018, it was still the eighth most watched program in 2018. While the awards are no longer what they once were, they are very much alive in the hearts of those 26.5 million viewers. Rather than contorting the program in a fruitless effort to attract a broader audience, the Academy should adhere to the program’s intention by building something those viewers want to continue watching: a program focused on film.

Opening the Golden Globes, Andy Samberg quipped, “We are gonna have some fun, give out some awards and one lucky audience member will host the Oscars!” But rather than scramble, the Academy should let the host fall to the background and let the awards take center-stage.