Audiences for award shows are in steep decline. This chart shows how far viewership has fallen

Key Points
  • The 2021 Oscars ceremony was watched by the smallest audience the award show has ever received.
  • Award shows, in general, have faced declining viewership in recent years.
  • The big question: Are people becoming bored with big award ceremonies or are they just watching them differently?

In this article

The Academy Awards are the biggest night for Hollywood, but fewer and fewer people outside that circle are tuning into the event.

Last Sunday, viewership for the annual Oscars telecast plunged to a new low, with 10.4 million people watching to find out which film took home the best picture prize, according to Nielsen data. That's a nearly 56% drop from the 23.6 million viewers that turned on their TVs for the program last year.

The Academy's third hostless show in a row scored a 2.12 rating among adults 18-49, a key demographic for advertisers, a 60% drop from 2020.

The drop in both metrics is not entirely surprising, as award shows, in general, have faced declining viewership in recent years. And few of the nominees were considered mainstream, given movie theaters have been largely shuttered for a year due to the pandemic.

The Emmy Awards, which aired in September, saw the lowest viewership of any such ceremony in the Television Academy's history. The show drew only 5.1 million total viewers, down 14% from last year's event, according to Nielsen.

The Grammys, too, saw staggering declines. This year's award ceremony drew 9.23 million viewers, a 51% drop from the 18.69 million who tuned into the program in 2020.

So, are people becoming bored with big award ceremonies or are they just watching them differently?

Some argue that the inundation of too many live award show ceremonies has saturated the market and made top-tier award shows like the Grammys, Emmys and Oscars less exciting to viewers.

The Golden Globes, the Video Music Awards (VMAs), Billboard Music Awards, Country Music Awards, BET Awards, People Choice Awards, Critics Choice awards and countless other ceremonies have all been televised in recent years. With such little curation, it wouldn't be surprising if viewers started to feel fatigued.

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Not to mention, younger viewers, many of whom have cut cable, aren't as willing to sit through the traditional 16 to 20 minutes of commercials per hour that comes with a live TV telecast. A three-hour show like the Oscars can mean an hour worth of ads.

There are also some who bemoan Hollywood, in particular, for using its award ceremonies to make political and social statements. Regina King, who opened Sunday's Oscars, used her time to allude to how Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three charges stemming from the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, last year.

"Now, I know that a lot of you people at home are going to reach for your remote when you feel like Hollywood is preaching to you, but as a mother of a Black son, I know the fear that so many live with and no amount of fame or fortune changes that," she said.

Then there are the nominees themselves. Nielsen's data shows that in the years where certain, more commercially popular, movies were nominated, more people tuned in. 2019′s ceremony, which hit 29.6 million viewers, featured nominees from popular films like "Black Panther," "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "A Star is Born."

Similarly, even a decade ago, when "Avatar," "Up," "Inglorious Basterds," "District 9," "The Hurt Locker" and "The Blind Side" were all nominated for best picture, ratings hit 41.6 million.

Of course, there's the possibility that people are watching these award ceremonies, but are watching the programs differently. The Nielsen data doesn't include figures for viewers who opted to watch any of the major award shows on streaming platforms.

Dan Rayburn, a media and streaming analyst, said one barrier is that the streaming industry hasn't yet agreed on a set definition of what a viewer is. Each streaming service has a different way of reporting how many people have watched a particular movie, TV show or live program. This can make it difficult to make comparisons between platforms and between those platforms and traditional cable providers.