Award Shows Swap Merit for Connections

Craig Dathe

With each new year arrives a fresh batch of awards shows.  Nonprofit appreciative organizations from many sectors of the entertainment industry put on high-budget televised ceremonies, to entertain us and distribute hardware to the artists that they believe deserve recognition.
Sounds easy, right?  Get a bunch of experts from each industry, get them to vote on what they think is the best of the year, and give the winners little statuettes for a job well done.  But the awards show game isn’t as simple as all that.

Let’s take the Oscars as an example.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is comprised of members from the major players in the film industry.  Accordingly, the films that get nominated typically have big-name actors in them and a boatload or two of money from major studios put into them.  No matter how well that favorite indie flick of yours was written, if no one’s heard of the director or the leading actors, then the Academy doesn’t care.

Also distressing is how the Academy’s influence shapes popular opinion of certain genres.  Ever noticed how comedy, animation, horror, and western-themed movies never get the same respect on Oscar night as your average Clooney-fest? It’s not because the comedy and horror folks don’t make quality films: it’s only that the ubiquity of the Academy in popular opinion leaves these genres marginalized.

In fitting fashion, William Friedkin, an Oscar-winning director and producer, describes the Academy Awards as “the greatest promotion scheme that any industry has ever devised for itself.”

The same goes for the Grammys.  Major-label music executives run the show, so you hardly ever find an award given to an artist without radio time.  The Emmys are no different; the corporate monopoly is just more submerged.  Behemoth television companies like ABC and NBC own the airwaves.  They decide what shows you watch, and thereby decide what shows have a chance at getting called up to the podium.

Somewhere a screenwriter is living in his landlady’s closet, crying himself to sleep every night, because he’s written the funniest sitcom since Seinfeld but doesn’t have the connections to get an interview with Warner Bros.

Many entertainment experts have such criticisms for their industry.  Kari Olmon, a theater critic for Curtain Up and Broadway World, holds her industry’s Tony awards in a less-than-reputable light.

“They’re an enjoyable spectacle, but most serious theatergoers consider them to be completely devoid of substance,” Olmon says.  “The Tonys are definitely a promotion vehicle for producers, and producers invest a good deal in the publicity and PR that the Tonys accord them.  So yeah, the awards are a way for producers to give their shows exposure because theater is a marginalized art form and the caption ‘Tony Award Winner!’ looks good in the New York Times ads.

As you can see, Olmon doesn’t save any nice words for the Tonys.  Hers is a complaint that all awards shows receive, from the Oscars to the Grammys.  Granted, I don’t have any real complaints for the televised ceremonies themselves. It’s Hollywood entertainment, and no more sinful than the Superbowl or The Bachelor.  If you’re expecting edgy art-house aesthetics in your Emmys show, then you’re going to be very disappointed.  But entertainment value aside, the awards for which these ceremonies are held hardly represent the entire industry.
Olmon puts the matter most succinctly, if not most pessimistically, when describing the Tonys.

“Conclusion: the Tonys have nothing to do with artistic merit and everything to do with money,” said Olmon.

All right, maybe some artistic merit is recognized in these awards shows, and they can be fun to watch, but clubhouses of industry bigwigs should not pose as representatives for the entirety of their industry’s artists if they’re going to ignore 90% of those artists’ output.  The Oscars aren’t going to go away, and perhaps they shouldn’t.  But the Academy’s word is hardly the last word.