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What’s the Point of Awards Season When What’s ‘New’ Doesn’t Matter Anymore?

Awards season is well under way, and the biggest takeaway for observers has been how much they’re hemorrhaging live viewers.

Declining audiences for these events aren’t necessarily a new development. It’s been happening for years as part of a larger decline for linear TV audiences watching anything (even live sports). Yet, 2021 awards season has shown just how little these particular events — at least the Golden Globes and Grammys, anyway — matter to viewers. After a year where many feel like every day was the same, it’s hard to generate excitement for shows, movies and/or music that were only consumed by a fraction of would-be viewers.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to create compelling live TV right now. Oprah’s interview of the Meghan Markle and Prince Harry was watched by nearly twice as many people as the Grammys (17.1 million on linear vs. 8.8 million cross-platform for the Grammys). But this year’s awards just lack any real ability to resonate, and that’s not necessarily their fault… even if they were already failing to resonate pre-pandemic.

Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald got into this a bit on “The Watch” this week, and it’s worth digging even further. It’s difficult to award the best “new” shows when it’s impossible to keep track of what those were. And even the ones that found success possess fleeting cultural relevance overall. New shows are constant, but they also constantly give way to more new shows. And when so many are on-demand and not serialized weekly shows (thanks, Netflix), it becomes the service that potentially owns the zeitgeist… not the shows it houses. They’re just part of the larger franchise that is Netflix/Disney+/HBO Max, etc.

Meanwhile, Friends and Law & Order: SVU were top-five shows by TV ad impressions this past year, per iSpot. Disney+ had one new Star Wars or Marvel series for all of 2020, and largely leaned on archive content through its first 14 months. Peacock hopes everyone just keeps watching The Office reruns on loop. There’s a reason Netflix paid $500 million for Seinfeld in 2019, and Peacock paid roughly the same amount for Friends.

“New” is interesting, and that’s what brings awards and accolades and many new viewers. But during a tumultuous year, people wanted the friendly and familiar. They’d watch a new show or movie too, of course. But the energy to dive into (yet another) prestige drama wasn’t there for the overwhelming majority of Americans… especially as they were likely living their own prestige-less drama while stuck at home.

Circling back around to award shows, that exhaustion and the viewership tendencies that result from them are a big reason why this award season has been such a slog so far. As criticism has long levied, the presentations are detached from aspects of reality. In the case of this past year, that reality just also happens to be media consumption.

Perhaps all of this is corrected as 2021 as least partially resembles a normal year, with a mostly normal movie release cycle and a mostly normal TV schedule. And diminishing daily existential dread for consumers, there’s once again room to explore what’s actually new and interesting.

At the same time, streaming’s ushered in a different era of viewership altogether in that “new” is whatever and whenever you want it to be. That genie is not going back in the bottle. If you want to watch Game of Thrones for the first time in 2021, you can. If you’d rather wait and watch all of Grey’s Anatomy until the show wraps up this year or some year in the future, you can do that, too.

The Super Bowl’s worst ratings in decades weren’t a harbinger of doom for TV, and people are still watching. It was a very clear sign, though — clearer than awards season — that the watercooler nature of TV is rapidly dissipating as an increasingly fractured audience just goes to their separate corners to watch whatever, whenever. Plenty of that will be on a form of linear TV. Plenty of it won’t be.

Award shows aren’t the only entities dealing with this shift, and even live sports (the sacred cow of TV audiences) are coming to grips with this new reality. But while network dramas and sports can reconfigure themselves around viewer preferences, award shows have a bigger challenge to deal with around relevance and necessity when it’s no longer clear what’s new and what everyone’s actually watching.