The Death of the Awards Show

by Joshua Alston

So let's say you watched the MTV Video Music Awards last night, then woke up this morning to report to an anachronistic corporate job wherein there is an actual water cooler around which people gather to discuss pop culture. Chances are your conversation featured observations such as:

"Kanye West is such a jerk! That South Park episode was an insult to gay fish everywhere."

"So, Russell Brand─does anybody else get the feeling you would find him even more annoying if you understood what he was saying?"

"Did you guys hear Eminem's acceptance speech? So composed and mature. If I didn't know better I'd swear he was 36 years old."

"What was up with that Lady Gaga performance? I think the blood was because she was supposed to be dying, but my girlfriend swears it was an homage to the locker-room scene from Carrie."

What your conversation was probably lacking was a mention of actual awards. You know, who won them, who didn't win them, and why. For the second year in a row, I went into the VMAs cold, not knowing anything about who was nominated in what category. Granted, this is partly because I'm pushing 31, and as I phase out of MTV's demographic, I don't know what's going on as much as I used to. (When Tokio Hotel won for best new artist last year, I believe my exact words were: "Who the f--k is Tokio Hotel?") But it's also because of the Awards Show Paradox. Does the show exist because the awards need to handed out, or do the awards exist because there needs to be a show?

Increasingly, the answer is the latter. There are useless awards shows scattered throughout the year, including the outmoded ones (see: the American Music Awards), and those hatched by cable networks in the same peculiar and arbitrary way that celebrities create fragrances. Anything in the name of brand extension. The sad part is that there was a time when the VMAs actually were about awarding the best videos of the year. Now categories like breakthrough video, best director, and video vanguard have been given short shrift or eliminated entirely.

If the migration away from focusing on awards was confined to the VMAs, it wouldn't be that big a deal, considering the VMAs have always awkwardly combined the traditional kudocast with outrageous high jinks and elaborate performances. But the show-first ethos appears to be spreading. This year's Grammys consisted almost entirely of performances. The producers of this year's Emmys created a ruckus when they announced a plan to remove the writing awards from the show, and wound up backing off the plan when a passel of writers and directors protested. Next year's Academy Awards will have 10 nominees in the best-picture category to allow more room for blockbusters that average people have seen and care about, an obvious ploy to attract more viewers to the telecast at the expense of the award's integrity.

The question is, does any of this matter? Do we still care about awards in the first place? Would we still tune in if it were just about the awards? The ratings trends certainly don't seem to indicate as much. At this rate, our kids will be talking about VH1's Big in '22 Awards the morning after, while the Oscars will be something you read about only in the Hollywood trades. But if it's about the spectacle and not the kudos, can't we just eliminate the awards all together? Instead of making producers wring their hands over the perfect ratio of comedy to performance to award, just eliminate the awards altogether. Have an annual show called Celebrities Wearing Slinky Dresses and Performing on Trapezes and Totally Hatin' on Each Other! The title needs some massaging, but the idea is sound. If we all agree that we don't care what famous person gets which trinket, let's call the whole thing off.