America has an insatiable appetite for competition. We currently sustain three individual singing competition shows, Bravo’s entire lineup of original programming, Survivor, the Bachelor, Wipeout - and that’s just reality television. Professional sports are a multi-billion dollar industry, and going to Vegas is an American tradition.
So it’s no surprise that we’ve used awards shows to try and turn television, music, and movies into competitions. And now, in true American spirit, I’ve decided to hand out an award for best award show. Drumroll, please…
The Oscars. Was there really any doubt? The Oscars are easily the best awards show (although they could stand to steal the tables and alcohol from the Golden Globes). In some ways, this doesn’t make sense. Music should make for a better live show than film. The Grammys bring in the most popular musicians in the world and have them perform. The Oscars are four hours of self-congratulatory speeches. Many more people have seen the television shows that are rewarded at the Emmys than have seen the many of the nominated films. The Golden Globes combine the star power of television and movies with the most congenial award show atmosphere.
So why are the Oscars the best? It’s simple: people care who wins. The Oscars, especially for actors, are a legitimate professional achievement. People care who wins enough that it changes what kind of movies get made. Sometimes it motivates great performances and brings us a great movie (see: “The King’s Speech”). Sometimes it brings us bloated drivel (see: “J. Edgar”). It also changes when movies get released. Movies with Oscar ambitions want to be released sometime in the late fall or early winter. They have to be out before the end of the year, but they want to be fresh in the minds of Academy voters, and they try to design the release to create as much awards buzz as possible.
In contrast, not only do the Grammys not influence the schedule of music releases, I don’t think anyone actually knows which artists and albums are eligible for what in any particular year. Somehow Bon Iver won Best New Artist a couple of weeks ago, despite the fact that the band was featured on “Chuck” in 2008 and played Lollapalooza in 2009.
The Emmys are based around the increasingly irrelevant network television schedule. Shows following in the footsteps of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” release smaller numbers of episodes in short, concentrated runs. Last year, “Boardwalk Empire” had been off the air for so long before the Emmys that voters assumed it was actually made during prohibition.
Another thing the Oscars have going for them is simplicity. There are no genre divisions (animated and foreign aren’t really genres). It recognizes the individual parts of filmmaking, and then the whole. The Emmys is essentially two different awards shows: one for drama and one for comedy. The Grammys are a mess. There are awards for album of the year, record of the year, and song of the year. And then there are more genres than you can shake a stick at.
The most important thing about the Oscars, is that they generally get it right. When you look back a particular Oscars, it gives you a good snapshot of what the memorable movies and performances were from that year. While the best film from a particular year doesn’t always win, the best team doesn’t always win the Super Bowl, either. The Grammys are a popularity contest. Even recent victories by Arcade Fire and The Black Keys feel more like calculated nods to a fracturing music fandom than genuine recognitions of quality. As for the Emmys, “The Wire” was never even nominated for Outstanding Drama Series. Nothing more need be said.
The Oscars matter in a way that no other awards show does. They have managed to establish and maintain prestige while the Emmys and the Grammys feel like manufactured ratings-machines. And that is why the Oscars win.