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How the pandemic has changed TV viewing patterns

Think about it. How have your own TV habits changed in the past year? What are you watching more of, less of, and how? The answers go a long way toward explaining the record-low ratings for awards shows, most recently Sunday’s Grammys on CBS. The telecast “averaged a record-low 8.8 million viewers on Sunday,” USA Today’s Gary Levin wrote. “That’s down 53% from 18.7 million for last year’s telecast on Jan. 26,” before the pandemic.

CBS said the Grammys were still the “largest audience for an awards show this season” – but that’s because the Emmy Awards nosedived to a measly 6.1 million in September, and the Golden Globes averaged just 6.9 million last month. So let’s unpack the reasons for this…

The great splintering

The Grammys free-falled in the ratings despite a telecast that critics praised for its inventiveness and energy. But where some saw a well-produced event, others saw a desperate appeal to youth that was ill-suited for the older demos of broadcast TV. The bigger-picture problem is that a great splintering is underway – a loss of communal experiences, whether at the movies or on broadcast or, to some degree, in music.

Here’s Brian Lowry with analysis: “The fallout from Covid-19 — and the impact on these live events — has hastened a host of problems. One obvious issue across the industry is fragmentation. Without the red carpet fashion and the unpredictability of live acceptance speeches in front of big audiences, why not just wait and watch the clips of anything interesting that happens after the fact?”

Lowry adds: “Even the Super Bowl wasn’t entirely immune to these forces, which leaves me wondering: To what extent is this huge dropoff not a one-time blip, but the new normal? If the latter, license fees for award shows are dramatically out of whack, and that will have a ripple effect on the organizations behind them, which rely on that TV revenue.”

Why this matters

Expanding on Lowry’s point: “While the decline of a few self-congratulatory Hollywood galas may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, especially during a pandemic, these shows employ thousands of workers, and the groups that put them on use the profits to fund programs for the arts,” Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw wrote. “TV networks pay tens of millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast individual awards shows, because they are part of an exclusive club: programming that needs to be seen live. In any given year, the Oscars and Grammys are among the only shows that can compete with live sports for viewers.”

Speaking of the Oscars…

Lisa Respers France writes: “The Academy Award nominations were announced Monday morning and it was a good day for diversity. Seventy women received a total 76 nominations, a record for a given year. Two women, Emerald Fennell and Chloé Zhao, were nominated in the directing category in the same year for the first time. Zhao is the first woman of color to be nominated in the category.”

>> Movie makers love movies about the movies, and Netflix’s “Mank,” about the making of the “Citizen Kane” screenplay, led the pack with 10 nods…

>> Also notable, from Lisa’s story: “Three Black men, Leslie Odom Jr. for ‘One Night in Miami’ and Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield for ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ were all nominated in the best supporting actor category…”

Diminished expectations for Oscar ratings

Brian Lowry writes: “The Grammys ratings hit just a few hours after Oscars nods rolled out. As the NYT’s Brooks Barnes tweeted, if the Oscars telecast falls off like the Grammys and Globes, ABC could be looking at ‘an audience of about 10 million,’ an unthinkable number as recently as a few years ago. For now, my advice to the Oscar producers and ABC would be to accept diminished expectations, and in a year when streaming is the major vehicle for delivering content — witness Netflix’s record 35 nominations — go with the flow, and hope for the best.”

Read Lowry’s full column here…

These trend-lines go back ten years

In so many areas of American life, the pandemic is accelerating trends that already existed. In TV, “the pandemic has sped up the exodus from linear,” Vulture’s ratings guru Joe Adalian wrote Monday. As CBS executive VP of specials and live events Jack Sussman told the LA Times before the show, “Awards show are hurting the way most of linear broadcast television has been hurting.” Notably, in that same piece, Grammys exec producer Ben Winston acknowledged the writing on the wall and predicted a 30 to 60% drop.

So let’s zoom out. Consider how much has changed in the past ten years: The growth of on-demand content libraries, the habituation of ad-free viewing, the omnipresence of celebs on social media, the ability to catch the best parts of live events later, the stickiness of always-on social feeds. One of the logical results: starry live events aren’t must-see-TV anymore. As one wise TV exec said to me, “Awards shows rely on a common definition of pop culture and that idea has been eroding for years.”

Oprah Winfrey’s recent interview is a compelling counter-argument, however. Interest in the Meghan and Harry interview was tied to royals drama and curiosity about what she’d say…