Are award shows as essential in popular culture as they make themselves out to be? 

For as long as I can remember, I have been tuning in to award shows as part of my yearly popular culture calendar routine. From the creative and exciting red carpet looks to the career defining wins and losses, award shows have seemed to define pop culture for many decades. 

However, as the years passed, I have found myself dedicating less and less time to watching M-Net’s channel 101 in the early hours of the morning. Most of my award show consumption has been relegated to watching acceptance speeches of my favourite winners on YouTube, scrolling through tweets, or perhaps reposting an iconic outfit on Instagram.  

In fact, the viewership numbers of the most prestigious award shows have been rapidly decreasing. Though self-dubbed as “Music’s Biggest Night”, The Grammy Awards saw their lowest recorded viewership in 2021 with a disappointing 8.8 million viewers when the year before saw 18.7 million viewers. Their viewership only went up by 1% in 2022. When it comes to South Africa, you rarely see people actively engaging with award shows on social media unless it is in an effort to poke fun at the production quality or celebrity outfits.  

Considering the low viewership and lack of positive interest in award shows, this raises the question: are award shows still relevant?  

There have been numerous debates across the internet that engage with this exact question and the cases made in favour of the award shows’ existence are not unfounded. Martin Scorsese, the Academy Award-winning director and producer says, “…when people see the label Academy Award winner, they go to see that movie”. It is on this very idea of added credibility and validation that these institutions have managed to survive.  

With the status that award winners are afforded, it is understandable why award shows have maintained their position in popular culture for this long.  

The issue comes up when the validation comes at the cost of discarding public opinion. I cannot count the number of times when award shows have made decisions that have either disappointed audiences on a massive scale or were extremely questionable.  

Take for instance the wildly popular South Korean boyband, BTS, who lost in the duo/group category at the 2021 and 2022 Grammys. Fans and critics were outraged because the nominated songs, Dynamite and Butter, were both praised for being energetic summer hits and they broke numerous sales and charting records.  

Then there were the 2021 South African Hip Hop Awards which released their nominations list with a “Best International Act” category which left many confused, to say the least. The nominees included only two acts from Africa: Ghanaian rapper, Sarkodie, and Botswana-born musician, William Last KRM. The rest of the list consisted of rap heavyweights from the US such as Kanye West and Drake. This decision was not only extremely comical but also disappointing because the award show had been generally understood to be a platform to showcase African talent.  

Both cases show that while award shows possess real power, this is being undercut by their inability to maintain relevance. Their strange and unpopular choices make it difficult to understand exactly who award shows are being made for.  

They may survive for decades to come, but for relevance, they may need a complete revamp today.   

FEATURED IMAGE: Rufaro Chiswo. Photo: File


• Wits Vuvuzela,SLICE: Some shows deserve a live audience, June 2021.