How do the Grammys reel us in? Hint: It's not just the awards (+video)

Over the years, the Grammys have become a souped up variety show – light on awards and heavy on all-star performances. The Recording Academy even cut prizes recently in several less popular categories. 

By , Staff writer

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    American recording artist, songwriter and producer, Miguel, poses for a portrait, in New York. Miguel is nominated for five Grammy Awards, including song of the year for his No. 1 R&B hit, “Adorn,” and best urban contemporary album for “Kaleidoscope Dream.” The Grammys air Sunday night.
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While the ceremonial aspect of the annual Grammy Awards suggests it is an event designed for industry recognition, the actual Grammy telecast Sunday is something entirely different. This year, only around a dozen of the more than 70 award categories will be announced during the 3-1/2 hour show.  

That’s because the Grammy Awards, like the Oscars and the Tonys, have evolved into old-school variety programs, heavy on singing numbers and dance routines that promote emerging stars, resurrect veteran performers, and emphasize the artists and musical genres that dominate commercial radio. 

The majority of the awards for genres such as jazz, Christian, bluegrass, blues, and classical are never telecast. These are awarded privately, through smaller ceremonies that take place earlier in the day or week.

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However, even those events feature fewer awards than before. Two years ago the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences eliminated 31 categories, knocking the list down from 109 to 78 and eliminating whole genres including Latin jazz, Hawaiian music, zydeco, traditional blues, and American Indian music. The categories on the chopping block had deep roots in American culture, but lacked the sales receipts of more lucrative genres like hip-hop, pop, or country.

The grumbling from artists in the slashed categories resulted in protests last year from all quarters of the industry, including a group of acclaimed Latin jazz musicians who held a rally and concert outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles – home to the Grammy telecast – to protest the decision. 

Since then, the complaints have quieted as many acquiesced to the fact that the Grammy telecast is essentially a marketing platform for the major record companies and a ratings boon for CBS, the network that has traditionally carried it each year. 

Smaller recording organizations like the Blues Foundation in Memphis and the Americana Music Association in Nashville have stepped up their efforts to fill the gap with their own awards ceremonies, including the Blues Music Awards given out every May and the Americana Honors & Awards held each September.

Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., says the show “is about creating a musical spectacle that is watchable, and the awards are just the framework in which the rest of this happens.”

“The main thing to keep in mind is that the Grammy awards ceremony is not so much about the actual awards as it is about television. The program will be over three hours long and feature performances by artists who might not even be getting awards that night,” Prof. McCall says.

One reason why Grammy producers are increasingly emphasizing fewer awards and more performances is that instant media is well tailored to report on its celebrity mash-ups.

The awards show is heavily promoted for “exclusive” performances that bring unlikely groups together, and this year is no different. Among the 21 musical performances scheduled, nine are group outings, including Sting, Bruno Mars, and Rihanna; Alicia Keys and Maroon 5; Elton John and Ed Sheeran; and an all-star tribute to Levon Helm, the late singer and drummer for The Band.

No matter if some of these clusters feel forced or the parties involved have nothing in common – the most important thing is the novelty. Whether the grouping produces a flash of brilliance or a train-wreck is largely inconsequential. In the world of 24-hour media, Grammy producers are betting on reeling in viewers, first during the show itself and then virally throughout the week that follows. 

It’s a strategy that worked last year, the first awards ceremony after the number of categories was whittled down. On the performance slate were the return of Adele and a tribute to Whitney Houston, as well as several mashups including Paul McCartney with Bruce Springsteen and Joe Walsh with Dave Grohl. CBS reported that 39.9 million viewers tuned in, making it the second-largest Grammy audience ever and the best ratings since 1984.

Corresponding to that success was the integration of online media. Grammy producers unveiled Grammy Live, a three-day webcast of special Grammy content, such as red carpet and party coverage. Although it didn’t stream the actual show in real time, it provided a “second screen” for users to get involved in the show, such as checking out perspectives from the crowd and having access to the backstage. The organization reported that 1 million viewers participated over their computer screen, phone, or tablet.

By giving viewers something to do while watching the broadcast – and featuring compelling performances to draw them in – Grammy producers are spinning the ceremony into competing media spaces that will give it currency days after it takes place Sunday. That means more exposure not just for its stars, but also for its sponsors.

“CBS has a lot invested in making this a ratings splash," McCall says. "CBS needs eyeballs to sell to advertisers, so the awards that can’t generate good television just won’t be on television."

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