Fans finding some sports championships, award shows less rewarding

Did you get your NCAA bracket filled out?

Your Oscar pool marked?

This week’s Academy Awards nominations and NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament tipoffs would normally trigger such social rituals, as rabid and even casual fans of movies and March Madness would weigh in as a way into a shared cultural experience.

But it turns out fewer Americans are sharing these experiences, exacerbating the isolation already present during the pandemic, and perhaps suggesting something more profound: a further fracturing of an already fragmented America. At minimum, the minimized audiences for award shows and some sports present a dilemma for broadcasters in an increasingly narrowcast media landscape.

On Sunday, the Grammy Awards might have hit some high notes, according to many critics, but hit a low note with viewers: A record low 8.8 million watched, which was 53% fewer than just last year. That’s not an aberration, but a continuation of constricted interest in similar programs. A fortnight before the Grammys, the Golden Globe Awards lost its luster — or at least its audience — falling 64% to a record-low 6.9 million viewers. Similar slides have hit 11 other award shows over the last year, according to an analysis compiled by Variety.

Next month’s Academy Awards aren’t likely to buck the trend. Blockbusters, already less likely to match their audience appeal with Oscar nods, have mostly been shelved until summer, when Hollywood hopes for a post-vaccine vanquishing of moviegoing fears. So while the slate of eight Best Picture nominees is lauded, the odds-on favorite “Nomadland” could also describe viewers wandering among streaming services in search of a nominated film instead of sharing the experience with others in a theater.

Award shows are not the only genre generating lower interest: Sports championships are, too. Sure, the Super Bowl is still the most shared media experience every year. But this year, despite featuring marquee quarterbacks Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, the big game got blitzed, too, drawing the fewest viewers since 2007. The 2020 World Series whiffed as well, falling about a third to its lowest ratings ever, and so did last year’s NBA Finals. And while it’s still too early to know if March Madness pulls an upset, TV ratings for conference championship games and the tournament selection show were down.

The viewing declines have been caused by technological and sociological shifts amid a pandemic that’s scrambling media habits. On Wednesday, for instance, a new Pew Research Center report stated that “the share of Americans who say they watch television via cable or satellite has plunged from 76% in 2015 to 56% this year.” The decline becomes a dizzying drop among ages 18-29: Just 34% report receiving TV via cable or satellite, compared with 81% of those aged 65-plus.

The acceleration in cord-cutting is linked to the rapid rise of streaming services like Netflix, which is not only gaining audiences but accolades. The service dominated Oscar nods with 35, more than twice Disney’s second-best 15.

The Academy’s — and Netflix’s — most-nominated film is “Mank,” a musing on old Hollywood. New Hollywood, responding to the virus and the contagion of new viewer habits, may make the Oscars the latest award show to decline.

“They aren’t the same shows, it doesn’t have the same buildup, there aren’t red carpets, you aren’t seeing celebrities show up, and you don’t have the whole industry machine promoting these events to the full extent they would normally,” said Stephanie Edgerly, an associate professor and director of research at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

“You can argue that the nominated films have never been as accessible this year as they have been,” Edgerly said, referring to previous years’ initial difficulty in screening some nominated films, which are often released just in coastal cultural capitals. But, she added, access isn’t everything.

“It’s the combination of having access and being motivated, and that motivation comes from people around you, comes from it having value, there being some currency around it, you being able to talk about it afterward.”

Like the way people talk about sports, which Prof. Douglas Hartmann, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Sociology, said are “really impacted to the extent to which you could easily and familiarly feel this imagined connection; this emotional, visual, visceral experience with other people.”

Feeling this is more difficult when few, if any, are feeling it in the stands, where cardboard cutouts are sad fan facsimiles. “True, dyed-in-the-wool sports fans who only care about the competition or performance — they don’t necessarily watch it for all those imagined connections,” Hartmann said. But, he added, “the majority of the casual fans, who make up the massive audience for big events — that’s who I would theorize that are truly impacted and find it much harder to be engaged in the event.”

Media firms in league with the major leagues have to hope that casual fans will return post-pandemic, especially since just this week the NHL iced a seven-year ESPN deal, and the NFL scored an 11-year agreement with multiple networks (notably, both accords include streaming services).

Despite the ratings erosion, both pacts pay more annually — nearly double in the NFL’s case — as media entities evidently consider sports a better bet than dramas and sitcoms, which have seen even steeper slides.

While watching some of these big events, “people create identities and communities in their interactions with others,” Hartmann said. “It’s not just that people are watching the same thing, but it’s that they’re watching with other people and they talk about it with other people and that kind of consolidates their views on things and their friendships and their relationships.”

Hartmann believes that the ever-evolving media era is most responsible for the decline of big events, which eventually will have social ramifications.

“It’s more the socialization habits around those that might be really changing dramatically and enabled by the new communication venues and technologies that are available to us that allow us to be more specialized and personalized in our engagement, especially in popular culture,” Hartmann said. “The cautionary side is that we’re less commonly involved in the same things so the thought would be that we are getting less unified, have less in common.”

Political divisions may be a factor, too, with some fans objecting to kneeling during the national anthem or politicizing acceptance speeches. The audience and accompanying social erosion is likely to endure, Edgerly said. So replacement rituals may be needed.

“We’re not going to see these kind of mass, consistent large numbers that we saw in the heyday of the broadcast era, so in that sense I do think this will be a trend that will persist,” Edgerly said. “But I do think there is something lost, this ritual of doing something at the same time as others. That is the glue of community; feeling like you are a member of society or a group or an area. … Community and society will need to really try to rebuild some of those rituals.”

But at least for now, it won’t be rebuilt with office pools, which just like the office itself will have to deal with pandemic delays, just like movie production, major league sports, and for the moment at least, audience interest.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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