Oscar, Emmy ratings run into a niche

The Oscars in 60 seconds
The Oscars in 60 seconds

Oscar and Emmy ratings continue trending downward, with the former having just recorded its second-smallest audience. While there's no simple solution, a key recurring challenge is that the nominees have run into a niche.

"Moonlight" was certainly a deserving best picture winner Sunday night. But it had also posted the lowest box-office total (about $22 million) among the nine nominated movies, none of which have cracked $200 million in domestic returns. By that standard, the big money remained in animation, where "Zootopia" topped a field that included fellow Disney hit "Moana."

The Writers Guild of America Awards, which preceded the Oscars by a week, displayed a similar trend toward niche-oriented, art-house fare, including top TV honors to a pair of FX series, "Atlanta" and "The Americans," whose high level of quality hasn't translated into equally lofty ratings.

Critics have referred to the current era as "peak TV," producing an abundance of ambitious, beautifully rendered series. The tradeoff, however, is greater fragmentation of the audience, with relatively small numbers of people watching many of the movies and TV shows that qualify as awards bait, while more widely seen superhero blockbusters and network crime procedurals operate on a wholly separate plane.

It wasn't always thus. The high-water mark for the Oscars ratings-wise came 20 years ago, when the mega-hit "Titanic" won best picture. Six years later, "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" capped off that popular trilogy by garnering 11 awards.

The same was true of TV in the 1990s, when series like "ER" and "NYPD Blue" -- major network hits -- snagged Emmys as the top drama.

Several trends appear to be working in concert. Ratings for individual shows are lower as a percentage of the population, thanks in part to the sheer glut of options via cable and services like Netflix.

Fewer blockbusters, meanwhile, exhibit the sort of creative ambitions that might result in a nomination, as risk-averse studios load up on sequels and established franchises. That explains why there was fleeting excitement about whether "Deadpool," the raunchy superhero movie, might actually sneak into the latest batch of Oscar nominees.

Related: Oscars have crazy ending, but second lowest rating in its history

Award nominations have gradually come to look more like critics' annual best lists, which are heavy with character-driven movies and cable shows. Although some of the latter can now amass big audiences, like "Game of Thrones" (which has won an Emmy) and "The Walking Dead" (which hasn't), generally speaking, premium-TV offerings still attract fewer people than their network counterparts.

Similarly, "Moonlight" becomes the fifth of the last six winners of the Independent Spirit Award to double up with a best-picture Oscar, a striking shift away from major studio movies.

This isn't intended to second-guess the choices. Ideally, awards should be handed out based on merit, not commercial considerations or popularity. The Oscars and Emmys shouldn't be confused with the People's Choice or MTV Movie Awards.

At the same time, award organizers need to recognize there is a cost in nominating movies that provoke shrugs when their names are called. Because if much of the potential audience lacks a rooting interest, you're relying on people to tune in for fashion or whatever silliness the host can muster, without much investment in who wins.

Each year, the respective academies conduct postmortems after their awards, analyzing what went right and (at this year's Oscars, conspicuously) wrong.

Plenty of tinkering has been tried to boost the ratings, usually to little avail. The biggest help, however, would likely come from the creative community itself, since an awards show with more projects people have seen -- say, a "Star Wars" or "The Avengers"-type movie worthy of an Oscar nomination -- certainly couldn't hurt.


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