Sunday’s American Music Awards will be packed with sets from the big-name artists you’d expect to see at a 2019 award show, including Lizzo, Camila Cabello, Billie Eilish, Post Malone, and yes, Taylor Swift. But the ABC telecast will also include performances from three acts that first hit the Billboard charts way back before the launch of Windows 95: Rockers Green Day, R&B diva Toni Braxton, and country crossover crooner Shania Twain. There’s nothing unusual about awards shows finding some time to spotlight the past, but what’s relatively new is the extent to which music industry kudocasts are leaning into nostalgia as a weapon against ratings erosion.
This trend toward embracing the past has developed over the past few years, says Mark Bracco, exec VP of programming and development at Dick Clark Productions, the company that produces the AMAs and several other big awards shows. Bracco says they started adding more old-school content a few years ago, most notably in 2015 when the Billboard Music Awards brought back Simple Minds to sing “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” to mark the 30th anniversary of the song’s release and famous use in The Breakfast Club. The performance was a smash on social media and it led Dick Clark Productions to weave more retro moments into the shows it produces. In 2017, Celine Dion marked the 20th anniversary of her Titanic theme by belting out “My Heart Will Go On” at the BBMAs. For last year’s show, Salt-N-Pepa did a medley to celebrate being the first female rappers to hit No. 1 on the charts, recruiting fellow retro act En Vogue to help out. And in May, this year’s BBMAs included showstoppers from ’90s icons Mariah Carey and Paula Abdul.
While Carey has been churning out hits well into the 21st century, Abdul long ago left the Billboard charts in favor of reality-TV roles like serving as a judge on American Idol. But that didn’t matter when she stepped onstage in Las Vegas. “It brought the house down,” Bracco says. “People loved it.” And he’s not just talking about the audience at the MGM Grand Garden Arena or the ever-enthusiastic crowds on Twitter. Bracco says Abdul and Carey’s set actually moved the Nielsen needle, something Dick Clark Productions has seen with other recent retro segments. “These performances by people like Paula Abdul or Celine Dion, they are spiking in those minute-by-minute [ratings],” he explains. “Christina Aguilera doing the tribute to The Bodyguard on the AMAs was a huge spike. When we gave Diana Ross the Lifetime Achievement Award a couple of years ago on the AMAs and she did this eight-and-a-half-minute medley of all her greatest hits, it spiked through the roof.”
Two years ago, Dick Clark Productions also added more nostalgia to its production of the Academy of Country Music Awards, introducing “ACM Flashbacks” segments, in which legacy artists team up with newer acts to perform classic songs. They’re not the only ones riding the retro bandwagon: Last week, the rival Country Music Awards, produced by Robert Deaton, was packed with blasts from the past, from a star-studded salute to female performers featuring Crystal Gayle, Tanya Tucker, and Dolly Parton to a pairing of Willie Nelson with Kacey Musgraves for a cover of “Rainbow Connection.”
Of course, the idea of awards shows celebrating the past is hardly new. Lifetime achievement honors have been staples of such ceremonies for years, as have tributes to artists who’ve passed away recently. The Grammys in particular play to broad audiences by staging reunions of big acts from earlier eras. But such nods to nostalgia used to be seen as outlier segments, since producers and networks focused on new and hot acts in order to get younger audiences to tune in. When Bracco was an executive at ABC prior to joining Dick Clark Productions, he says, “We didn’t think quite as much about legacy acts or anniversaries. If there were 17 bookings in the show, we wanted 17 of the youngest, coolest artists across different genres of music.”
Over the past decade, however, networks have seen their biggest ratings declines in the younger half of the 18-to-49 demo, with millennials and Gen-Z viewers least likely to turn on TV to watch a show of any kind. Audiences aged 35 and up have also declined, but not quite as much. By booking talent familiar to viewers who were alive and buying records in the ’80s and ’90s (when buying records wasn’t just some niche hobby), shows like the AMAs and the BBMAs hope they can stem or maybe even slightly reverse the Nielsen erosion that’s endemic to TV right now. “There were times over the years where I’d get a comment from a family member or a friend who’d say, ‘I watched your show last night and I’m starting to feel old. I don’t know who those people are’,” Bracco says. “If that person’s in their mid-to-late 40s, they’re still in the demo. I want them watching the show. So we should think about booking people that appeal to that age group.” The goal, he says, is to “make sure that the kids, and mom and dad, and grandma and grandpa all want to watch the show.”
Still, these nostalgia hits aren’t all about turning awards shows into the TV equivalent of an oldies radio station. “I think youth will always be served on [the AMAs],” Rob Mills, who heads up alternative programming, specials, and late night for ABC, told Vulture via email. Pointing to Sunday’s show, he notes, “We do have Lizzo and Billie Eilish, after all!”
And as much as Bracco, a card-carrying member of Generation X, loves paying tribute to musical milestones of yore, he still believes it’s “extremely important” for shows such as the AMAs and the BBMAs to reflect what’s going on in music today, no matter how difficult it gets to snag those younger viewers. “You want to be vital and you want to be current,” he says.