The Oscars are coming. For the people up for them, and the corporate entities behind the nominees, awards can make a difference. They can be an ego boost, feel like a career reward, and bring material benefits in exposure and dollars. But why should the Oscars matter to the public?

Seems like they don’t as much as in the past.

The 2020, 2021 and 2022 Oscar broadcasts are the three least-viewed ever. Last year, 16.6 million watched the show in the U.S. (plus 3.3 million in Canada). To put that in perspective, that’s less than a random NFL broadcast (in 2022, 82 of the 100 most-watched telecasts were NFL games), and less than one-third the audience of the most-watched Oscars, 57 million in 1998. That was the year Titanic won.

The actor Seth Rogen mused about why the film industry frets at all about the sinking viewership for the Oscars. “I don’t get why movie people care so much if other people care what awards we give ourselves,” he said. “I don’t care who wins the automobile awards. No other industry expects everyone to care about what awards they shower upon themselves.”

Yet the Academy Awards still generate buzz and millions make it appointment TV. There are zero stakes for the viewers in the outcomes. So what’s going on in our brains to make the Oscars, or any award shows, worth watching?

I came across this article and this one that looked at the psychology behind award show fandom. Here are four forces at play.

  1. We want approval of our own choices. When a favourite of ours wins, it becomes reassuring, i.e. others feel as we do.
  2. In our youth, we started to look at many celebrities as role models. We can feel that we know them, even though they’re detached from us. At award shows, we get a glimpse at what we perceive as their unfiltered selves. If we sense they’re more “vulnerable” and “real”, they seem more like us. Even though their reactions at award shows are often quite calculated.
  3. We crave external praise. So much so that we’ve now developed a formal system to feed it to us constantly and wherever we are – social media likes. In a way, award shows reinforce the idea that even celebrities who “have it all” relish outside validation and care what others think about them.
  4. Many of us are judgmental creatures. An award show gives us a prime vehicle where we can critique all night long – choices of winners, outfits, hair styles, speeches, jokes. It’s a three-hour judge fest.

Whether a movie I love wins or loses an Oscar doesn’t change my opinion of it. And an Oscar win doesn’t make me appreciate a movie I dislike – let’s just say when I watched Titanic I rooted for the iceberg so the movie would end quicker.

Even though I watch the Oscars, mainly for the unpredictable moments, I know that awards for something as subjective as art are silly. Maybe all awards are in any field. As Jerry Seinfeld once said upon accepting a comedy award from HBO:

“Awards don’t mean a thing. Every real estate office has some framed, five-diamond president’s award thing by the desk. Every hotel check-in has some gold circle service thing. Every car salesman is a platinum jubilee winner. The hotel sucks, the real estate person is stupid, and the only thing the car salesman is good at is ripping you off. It’s beyond me that we feel the need to set aside a night to give out these bowling trophies, so all these people can pat each other on the back, boring half the world.”

Still, I’ll tune in again, as I do every year, to see who gets the world’s glitziest bowling trophies. So to those who watch, enjoy the Oscars.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

March 8, 2023


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