By Jett Wells
Smaller, better, faster, shorter. No, these aren’t the lyrics to a Daft Punk remix; it’s just the mantra of America's post-Google culture. If our entertainment and technology is getting faster, shorter and more efficient as consumer attention span shrinks at an alarming rate, should our award shows be any different?
The answer, apparently, is no. On Wednesday, the Grammys announced they’re shrinking the awards show by shaving off 31 total awards, downsizing from a whopping 109 categories to 78 (for comparison's sake, the Academy Awards only have 24). Such a drastic move makes one think the glamorous award ceremony just came off a rough few years, ratings-wise, but that couldn’t be further from the truth; the 2011 Grammys posted the best ratings in 10 years, so why the change?
It’s not so much a numbers game, but an outreach issue; by taking away some of what, to the average music fan, could be viewed as esoteric niche categories, the Grammys are — as Recording Academy president Neil Portnow put it — "demonstrat[ing] its dedication to keeping the Academy a pertinent and responsive organization in our dynamic music community." Simply put, the Grammys needed a good haircut, thought there might be even bigger problems ahead.
Back in 1959, the Grammys had only 29 awards and clearly, the show has bulked up over over the last 50 years. In retrospect, it's an honorable mission on behalf of the Grammys to expand and include the vast array of music genres from all over the world, but the concept doesn’t really fit into the tight competitive space of primetime television ... even though most of the awards handed out aren’t televised. Instead of shelling out awards to uber-specific artists, the awards show will compartmentalize categories and squeeze in solo rock artists with rock groups (why didn’t they do this earlier?) It’s smart, lean and efficient thinking, and a more than sound way of focusing on what’s important: doing due diligence to keep the viewer watching and not getting bored (or attempting to have them keep track of more than 100 winners).
The 2011 Grammys posted the best ratings for the show since 2001 (even though the Oscars scored 10 million more viewers on a bad year), thanks in large part to the arsenal of top talent performances, including Eminem, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga (and her space egg). But despite the good numbers, viewers on Twitter proved a large disconnect between the show and its audience. Massive Grammy hashtags like #whoisArcadeFire or #whoisLadyAntebellum (there was even a Tumblr page dedicated to the former question) pointed out the obese elephant in the room: that Grammy viewers aren’t nearly as educated in music as the Grammys expect them to be. Either this is just an outlier anomaly, or the Grammys are too thorough and wide-spanning for their own good.
With that said, it’s unfair to suggest the Grammys should be as tight and efficient as a show like the Oscars (which people still complain is too long), since music as an art form is arguably a lot more malleable than film. Going by the numbers, the Grammys' 78 categories look ridiculous when compared to the Oscars' 24, but like it or not, music is a more individualized art form and there are a ton more musicians than filmmakers in the world. The 2011 Oscars tightened their duration, because of complaints of it moving too slowly, but the real reason both the Oscars and Grammys are seen as under-performers is the disconnect between the average viewers' knowledge of the shows’ content. And who can blame them? The average movie buff doesn't see all the top short documentaries or short animated films, much like the average Paramore fan doesn’t know all that much about Sigur Rós.
Award shows pride themselves on glamor, elegance and high-brow understanding of culture, and — in theory, at least — and the average award-show viewer does the same, but both sides could afford to know more about each other to make an even better show down the road. And slimming down is as good a first step as any towards achieving that.