Congrats Jay Penske! You Made the RC Cola of Awards Shows
The show's new owner chokes on misguided pomposity chasing the Oscars
Here’s what I don’t get. You buy an awards show in 2023, which is the equivalent of investing in typewriters a few years after the introduction of the iMac.
But having bought it, you can do anything with it. You’re not beholden to the old proprietors, who have been put into a cage. You have no boards to deal with like AMPAS... you can do anything with the show. You can hold it in the International Space Station. You can pick the winners by a worldwide yelling contest. Or by a sword fight between the contenders. You can put magic mushrooms in all the guests' food (I’m sure the authorities would look the other way), or lead the entire ballroom in a group singalong of the collected works of Bon Jovi. Anything. The awards genre is yours to reinvent.
And instead you double down on the most pompous, still-insufferable, humorless parts of the awards death march. You decide to up the very parts that have been driving viewers away.
I’m sure there’s some corporate logic somewhere in which that makes sense. A reason why your insecurities, judgment, self-protective instincts drive you to emulate ratings-land’s No. 1 Awards Show (the Oscars) with a diluted facsimile instead of leaning into your historic shambolic best qualities. In other words, deliberately be RC Cola. Be clear you are the cheaper alternative. Why risk anything when you can position yourself as second or third-best, and pray that you catch enough confused elderly viewers to get a number.
In fairness, it wasn’t the very worst awards show ever, but that’s a competitive category. There wasn’t any massive train crash on the order of Oscar’s Snow White opener or the Moonlight/La La Land screw up (although the opening monologue surely qualifies for some sort of historic status). When you start throwing the show’s writers under the bus during the monologue and arguing with the audience that the jokes they didn’t laugh at are, in fact, funny, you’re in some kind of record-breaking territory.
There was a room full of deserving artists, some of whom won prizes and were happy about it. Some of whom make heartfelt speeches about their victory, which always somehow rise above the context.
But mostly it was just... there. With no reason to still be there. With all the fun, and raucous whimsy of the Globes drained away. Taking itself deadly serious. You could feel the weight of the question: didn’t we get rid of this show already? Why is it still here? Like a houseguest two weeks past his original planned departure sitting in the living room and holding the family hostage with his 15th recitation of his thoughts on what’s wrong with politics today.
It’s the Penske Media way: to just make everything it owns 15-25 percent worse every year. Although this might have been a bit more than that. To take itself incredibly seriously, and do stupid self-defeating things like squeezing in more tables while somehow making people feel farther from the stage.
I get tired of making the point about a conflict of interest. Hollywood I should know is not the place to get too fussy about such things. When I rave about Penske’s media’s outlandish conflict of interest here, most of my exec-types friends look at me like I’m yelling “Don’t you see! They’ve re-routed the Mejodolopes through the harmintasticer and now they’re all throaborish!”
One can feel like Donald Sutherland in Animal House pleading for term papers.
But frankly, this all perfectly captures the ethos of Hollywood today, where deal and scale are everything. It’s all we’ve got, this big thing, and it fits with other pieces of the company like this. And we’ll squeeze more money out of it by doing this and that, and synergy! And nobody stops to think — why do we want this big thing? Do we have any perspective on how we would improve the thing we’re buying? Having taken on this thing that’s been shedding viewers for years, do we have any thoughts on how we might draw in some new ones?
This assumption that people have to digest the industry’s big products — they have no choice but to buy tickets for the latest Mission Impossible or Fast and Furious — because they always have and we own them so they’ll see what we tell them to see. And the awards trail is mandated in the constitution. So they will walk through every last step with us until it’s done.
Nobody needs an Oscar precursor show. It’s currently a very open question whether anybody even needs an Oscar show. For a few decades, through whatever good fortune of calendar timing and Dick Clark alchemy, deservedly or un, the little oddball, liquored-up ceremony that could crow-bared its way into the awards calendar and into a spot on TV with more than respectable viewership.
But nobody needed one more awards show.
For the Globes, after a year when it was too chagrined to even do a show, followed by a somber procession of apologies, followed by a very timid ceremony in 2023 dominated by its host talking about what a hard choice it was to decide to be the front man for such a compromised show and whose broadcast was the straw that led NBC to say farewell for good — all the fuss may have worn down the boycott and outrage (Kelly Bush Novak shepherded client Christopher Nolan across the floor if you want proof of that). But that doesn’t mean the audience was just sitting there saying, “Tell us when it’s okay to watch again.”
Had the awards decided to just go away, it would be a self-inflicted wound for Hollywood, losing an informercial for itself. But from an audience perspective, nobody outside the industry would have been sad it was gone. Or even noticed.
The basic problem for the whole sector is this is a genre in decline. It’s a legacy audience: you’re not winning any new viewers. So when you break the habit for the viewers you have, presumably they are gone, and you’re not winning new ones to replace them.
But Penske media saw an opportunity here: to whitewash them out of the penalty box, and with the scale of its trade monopoly, wring some money out of the fading behemoth where it all became a sort of flywheel monstrosity. (It’s the awards show arm of the private equity model where a billionaire’s kid, in this case with Saudi backers, takes on distressed assets to squeeze every last nickel out of a declining business.)
(Fun fact! Count how many times “Jay Penske” is named in a story from one of his publications!)
Only problem: after the Globes themselves had demonstrated that nobody needed it by going away, there was no reason why it should come back. Except for, one imagines, the internal conversations within the tradeopoly.
“There’s always been this kind of weird show, run by this screwball collection of hucksters. Well we’ve gotten rid of them. So they aren’t running it anymore, and we’ll make the whole thing more normal, and won’t that be great?”
So this is what you get then when you have a show with no reason for being, no identity, no nothing — just we’ve assembled an Awards Show on the spot where the Golden Globes used to be. See? Same ballroom, same time, same collection of celebrities. All the hype machinery brought to bear, sooooo...Awards Show! The perfect formula for what THR’s TV critic — in an act of insane bravery — called, “The dullest awards show I’ve ever watched.”
Obviously everyone wants to be something important. But they sort of understood what this was, the quasi-disreputable bonhomie of the thing. If you’re not a professional awards pundit, the whole “predictor of the Oscars” thing was a silly boast that even, if true, who cares?
For everyone else, the Globes was the funnest stop on the awards circuit (an incredibly low bar) because it was boozy, relaxed, mocked itself, the winners didn’t take the awards too seriously, it was drunk and chummy and everything that Oscars could never be.
I had thought that the best way the HFPA could climb out of its troubles would be to create a Bravo show about itself, showing its zany, inappropriate, international crew fighting and feuding on the road to the big show every year.
Penske Media went in the opposite direction.
So Penske Media came in and said, we’re putting all that craziness in a cage. Now we’ll give you the respectable, serious, no fun allowed version of the Globes. Which you’ll watch because... it’s a precursor?
Penske Media is so hooked on its awards season fumes with its screenings, and special issues, and round tables and breathless coverage of the announcement of every presenter and profiles that it actually thinks all that stuff about being an Oscar predictor is what anyone outside of Hollywood cares about.
I am not opposed to a little awards campaigning and FYC’ing. Hey, if they can make it fun and not a tiresome self-important slog, I wouldn’t be opposed to a lot of FYC’ing.
But the entire Penske monopoly is so choking on the awards race, it’s like a snake that’s swallowed a steamboat. It’s no longer a harmless sideshow, it has completely overwhelmed its publications, its reporting, its instincts, its objectivity, and finally just its common sense. It has so choked on all this self-serious pablum that it thought it was real, and it believed it was the reason why people watched the Golden Globe awards.
If we’re going to find our way back, its going to start taking people who believe the deal is more important than the audience and putting them in a corner somewhere where they can’t hurt anybody ever again.