CBS Refuses to Renew ACM Awards Amid Slipping Ratings

We’re coming to the end of an era. Time was years ago that whenever an awards show came up on the calendar, it was appointment television for many American households. Even if you weren’t particularly into country music or whatever the awards show was covering, you didn’t want to be the only person standing around the water cooler at work or in the lunchroom at school the next day who didn’t see the CMAs or the ACMs, even if it was just to hate on them. They were fuel for the zeitgeist.

These days, award shows haven’t just been bifurcated by the culture war, they’ve become niche programming from the continued parsing of audiences due to the incredible amount of choice out there in the marketplace, facilitated by the internet. Forget people 30 and under not having cable TV anymore, they may not even have a television, and why would they? Whatever they may miss from not committing three-plus hours to an awards show presentation, they can catch up with on YouTube the next day.

And yes, the focus on filling these awards shows with culture war signaling has certainly eaten into the viewership. So has continuing to ignore the rising tide of independent artists in country and other genres of music, who rarely if ever get an opportunity at awards they’re legitimately worthy of, while shoving aside the legends of country only discourages older audiences who may actually still tune into these awards shows if only from muscle memory from fussing with it at all. They have no desire to see Dan + Shay.

But frankly, these are simply secondary concerns. The truth is no matter what they do or who they attempt to cater to, these awards show presentations just don’t seem long for the world unless some unforeseen seismic cultural shift occurs. Even if they do right the ship when it comes to trying to appeal to more core demographics in the country audience, the curse may already be cast after years of acrimonious decisions made by these productions pushing core country fans away.

The Wrap is reporting that the ACM Awards have failed to be renewed by CBS for 2022. This is a pretty huge development. The organization owned by Dick Clark Productions attempted to play hardball, and demanded $22 million from CBS to air the show, when the previous fee was only $20 million. This is all in an environment where the ACM Awards have lost half their audience just in the last three years. In 2021, their ratings were a 0.8, with some 6 million viewers. CBS didn’t even counter-offer, they just said no thanks. Now the ACMs have no home at the moment.

Someone is likely to pick them up. That’s how these things go, and NBC appears to be interested. But it might be at a bargain basement price. Production budgets may be slashed. The ACMs may get a less-than-ideal slot on the calendar, and the relevancy of the awards will continue to dwindle, at least as an annual television presentation. Perhaps the awards themselves will still hold some value to the artists and their fans.

Maybe the ACMs and other awards shows will move to a cable channel amid plummeting ratings, like we’ve seen with a lot of sports programming. But then again, how many in the new generation of consumers have cable? Very few of them. According to Pew Research, cable usage has fallen almost just as much as award show ratings, down from 76% in 2015, to only 56% today, and even less among younger consumers. Only 34% of adults ages 18 to 29 have cable or satellite in the United States.

Speaking of cable programming, The CMT Awards held on June 9th were highly praised for their “wokeness.” Overlook the fact that the CMTs aren’t a real awards show to begin with, the ratings were so bad, they didn’t even register on publicly-available reports. This is one of the problems with all of these award shows, from the ones in music, to film and television: If nobody’s watching—especially the demographic you’re looking to sway to your side of the culture war—what is the point? Ultimately, you’re just preaching to a choir. And that choir is getting so small, it renders any messaging inert.

But again, even though some love to snap, “Get woke, go broke” at these awards shows—and there is probably some blame to go to slicing the audience down political lines—the truth of the matter is the new generation of consumers just doesn’t care about these shows at all. They grew up in environments where everyone was rewarded, and singling people out for achievement was discouraged. And so was watching commercial-supported television. Meanwhile the older generation has lost interest, because they don’t identify with the artists performing or competing.

There is no good answer or solution to this. That’s perhaps why the ACMs have been going through all sorts of executive and managerial changes lately. Pete Fisher ran the Grand Ole Opry with an iron fist for many years, and left in early 2017 for the ACMs, only to leave the ACMs in 2019. In the wake of Pete Fisher, the Opry has found new life, and specifically through the streaming medium, which was a hit during the pandemic. Meanwhile the CMTs who used to stream their CMT Awards live on the internet pulled that option back in 2016.

Making these award shows available to everyone online might be one way to pull in more audience members. More folks are turning to their computers or phones to consume media these days than the television. But even that may just result in a short-term bump. It’s even worse for award shows in film. The 2021 Golden Globes were down an incredible 63% from 2020 numbers, and the Oscars down 58%. People are done.

If these awards shows in country music and beyond are going to continue to mean something, then they need to mean something to the consumers they’re meant to represent, instead of presenting lineups that only represent the mainstream options that continue to lose market share to independent artists, signaling in ways that only appeal to a slim but loud contention of Twitter users and offer no real fundamental change to often fair concerns, while dealing with Country legends only in tokenisms turns away the core demographic that still actually watch television.

And even then, it still may be too late to reinstate these awards shows as the cultural vanguards and appointment television they were even just a few years ago.

As Waylon Jennings once said, “It’s been the same way for years. We need a change.”

© 2021 Saving Country Music
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