Last night the 2020 Primetime Emmy Awards aired. Did you miss them? Fail to realize they were even on? So did I. In fact, so did more Americans than have in decades. This year, only 5.1 million viewers tuned in to watch the Emmys. That’s down from 6.9 million last year, 13.5 million in 2010, and 21.8 million in 2000. Notice a trend? Sure, the fact that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic and that the broadcast itself was done mostly virtually didn’t help matters as far as this year’s ratings went, but one cannot deny that this is not a one-off but rather a steady decline in ratings; one that is not dissimilar from consistent decline in viewership for similar awards shows over the recent years. What accounts for this undeniable drop in interest? One can argue that it is clearly multifaceted but that it all centers around a central theme: the fading luster of “celebrity.”
As a little girl growing up in the 90’s, I clearly (and perhaps somewhat wistfully) remember the anticipation of award shows. The chance to glimpse gorgeous actresses in shimmering gowns on the cable or network pre-shows (let’s face it, the network red carpet special didn’t hold a candle to Ms. Rivers…I dare you to disagree!) “Whose look are you most looking forward to?” the fashion pundits would ask each other eagerly. “What trends can we expect this season?” “Is color in?” And the magic of awards night was of course followed up the next night by syndicated entertainment shows where all the glamorous looks on the red carpet and big moments from the ceremony were analyzed. The average viewer most likely saw a good half of the films or television shows that were honored and applauded. There was a sense of universality to the experience…a sense of sharing it with other Americans.
The events that held the most prestige in those days were, of course, the Oscars, the Emmys, and the Golden Globes (which combined BOTH movie stars and televisions stars and seemed somehow a bit more “fun” even to my little girl eyes). Stars who throughout the year would only be seen on the big or small screen or in magazines were now exiting limos in breathtaking looks as pundits chimed in gleefully. The much-lauded movies that had been released in the preceding few months predictably took the majority of the major awards at the Oscars, and the Emmys were filled with familiar winners from network favorites.
As the years went by, indie movies and cable shows gained more and more momentum, and eventually streaming services produced some of the best TV had to offer. These developments in media weren’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, most would argue their offerings challenged both the film and TV mediums to produce more quality, less predictable content, and allowed for a wider variety of artists to express themselves. However, along with these mostly positive developments came a side effect; a vast increase in the number of “celebrities.” No longer were the stars of “Friends” and “ER” the “it crew.” No, now there were multiple it crews; it crews for each taste and genre. No more was there a very elite pantheon of the very top movie stars, but rather a plethora of almost-really-big stars. As time went by red carpets were filled with more and more faces that the average viewer vaguely recognized or didn’t recognize at all. Sure, there were the token BIG celebrities, but the field in general was broader and somehow seemed less special and glamorous. Surely my journey into adulthood and preoccupation with other things left less time to keep up with “who’s who,” but this sentiment was shared by many an American who considered themselves a casual movie and television fan.
While the broadening of the film and television mediums made room for more and more “celebrities” and perhaps weakened the prestige of those at the top, the past decade has produced another, perhaps more significant development, in the sheen of celebrity fading from the public consciousness. Fifteen years ago, if one wanted to know more about Reese Witherspoon, one would have to wait for her to make the talk show rounds or read the latest gossip about her in “People.” Now, she’s right there on your Instagram feed. And you know what her kitchen looks like. And what she’s thinking about a topic that you also had mulled that day. The mystery hasn’t faded, it’s pretty much gone. Celebrities appear in our social media feeds the same way our best friends and distant aunts do. Seeing them isn’t special; it isn’t glamorous. It’s just expected. We really don’t care who pops out of a limo wearing what. Instead we hear about their fun brunch with girlfriends that they post about in the same manner our neighbors do, and we notice details of their homes and yards we’d love to copy.
While these factors are huge players, one also cannot deny that the public has largely grown weary of the penchant many celebrities have for using award shows to spout political opinions; opinions that often times alienate many of their fans. While speeches of such a nature have been around for some time, their frequency and predictability has left many award show viewers fatigued. Now when a celebrity expresses an opinion or endorsement of a political nature we disagree with, we can keep scrolling the same way we do when our cousin Joe does the same thing.
While the science behind the drop in award show ratings may be multi-layered and not yet fully understood, one can’t help but feel that we may be approaching the end of an era as far as the world of celebrity goes. While my adult interests fall far away from the world of Hollywood and likely would have regardless, it’s hard not to feel a little sentimental for the days of watching elegant, shining women step out of limos as I dreamed I could one day look like them. Surely what I experienced in the 90’s was only a small fraction of what was the height of Hollywood glamour and mystery several decades prior, but I can’t help but feel that I got to experience the tail end of it.