Jere Hester

Oscars and Grammys Campaign for Relevance

Changes to both awards shows seek to boost fairness. But is it too late?

The magical mix of originality, timeliness, critical kudos and box office success somehow couldn't snare "Get Out" what it most deserved: a Best Picture Oscar.

Meanwhile, the first Grammys of the #MeToo/Time's Up era featured only two women among the nominees for the top four categories (Lorde, who lost the best album contest, and Alessia Cara, who won best new artist).

Perhaps not coincidentally, the ratings for both broadcasts both dipped – marking a record low for the Oscars and the poorest showing in five years for the Grammys. Even worse than being out of touch, the awards shows came off to some as unfair.

The awards season is months away. But the folks behind the Oscars and the Grammys this week launched campaigns for relevance – and perhaps even long-term survival.

The Grammys expanded the top four categories from five nominees to eight, in an apparent bid to include a wider array of artists. It's a risky move: There's no guarantee Grammy voters will deliver a more representative field.

There's also the possibility that a dilution of ballots among a larger cohort could hurt the chances of worthy fan favorites.

Case in point: the Academy Awards, which stretched the Best Picture category from five to up to 10 a decade ago, with mixed results.

Sure, a couple of brilliant animated films (“Up,” “Toy Story 3”) made the nominations cut. But if anything, winners have trended in recent years toward critical darlings (“The Artist,” “Birdman” and the most recent champ, “The Shape of Water,” to name a few).

The Academy took its latest significant step toward inclusion this week by inviting 938 new members, about half of them women and 30 percent of them minority group members. Still, the voting pool, which could hit a record 8,200, remains largely male and white.

The frivolous spectacle of rich entertainers triumphantly waving statuettes can offer a welcome escape. Yet awards shows are taking on new significance, symbolic and otherwise, at a time when the social, political and cultural are increasingly fraught and intertwined.

It’s uncertain whether the Grammy and Academy changes will help smooth a bumpy playing field. But it’s clear the fastest path to irrelevance is paved with unfairness.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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