Is Amazon Paving the Way for Streaming Awards Shows?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Getty Images

Ratings for the Oscars, Emmys, and other big awards shows have plunged over the past five years, prompting all sorts of speculation about the future of kudocasts. Some industry insiders have even speculated as to whether these celebratory ceremonies would be better off cutting the cord and shifting to streaming, where there’d be less pressure to generate big audiences — or to make the sorts of changes currently causing so much unrest among Academy Awards superfans. We’re about to find out what such a digital future might look like: Tonight’s 57th annual Academy of Country Music Awards will be seen live on Amazon’s Prime Video, making it the first major awards show to be housed exclusively on a digital platform. It almost certainly won’t be the last.

In many ways, the ACM Awards are an unlikely streaming pioneer. The country-music-themed show was based at CBS from 1998 until last April, having previously done extended stints on both NBC and ABC. While never as big a draw as the Grammys or the American Music Awards, the event remained a powerful Nielsen performer as late as 2019, when it still was able to pull 10 million same-day viewers and nearly double its closest time-slot rivals among adults ages 25 to 54.

But as with so many big linear TV events, the pandemic and the continuing expansion of streaming competition took a toll. Last year’s ACMs telecast fell to just 6 million viewers and turned in an even weaker demo performance. And then, last summer, Paramount Global–owned CBS pulled out of contract-renewal talks with producer MRC Live & Alternative, deciding instead to partner with sibling cable network CMT to turn its long-running CMT Awards franchise into an exclusive Eye event. MRC, now looking for a new home for the ACMs, held some early conversations with NBC, its partner on the Golden Globes. But those went nowhere, almost surely because of the network’s concerns over the annual price tag, which industry sources pegged at north of $20 million.

And that’s where Amazon’s Prime Video came in. It agreed to pick up the ACMs for a year, and while neither MRC nor the tech giant is talking financials, it’s not a stretch to say that the $20 million CBS and NBC balked at doesn’t qualify as an extraordinary investment for a streamer. What’s more, a big live event like the ACMs fits with the current gameplan for Prime Video. The Amazon streamer has been more active recently in both the live TV and music spaces, paying big bucks for rights to NFL Thursday Night Football and investing millions in events such as its Prime Day concert series. “Now that we have the technology to be able pull these off, it’s pretty exciting to be able to lean into these big cultural moments around content,” Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke tells Vulture.  “So whether it be country music [or] the Kanye-Drake concert, we’re walking the audience into this expectation that we’ll deliver entertaining, live, exclusive content on Prime Video.”

Given Prime’s increasing interest in live programming, an awards show with a half-century-old brand and a decent-size audience — even at last year’s reduced levels — felt like a logical next step, Salke says. “We had our fair share of conversations around awards shows, and this one did feel like a natural progression,” she explains, noting Amazon has “a huge country music fan base within our customer body,” which should be receptive to the event. The ACMs will also give Prime an opportunity to do some real-time market research: Will viewers still invested in watching awards shows follow them to a streaming service? And just as importantly, can a digital ecosystem such as Amazon Prime drive new audiences to the show?

Because of the stakes involved, the producers and Amazon are going all-out to make this year’s ACMs a big, consumer-friendly experience, according to MRC Live & Alternative president Adam Stotsky:

➽ The show is scheduled to run for two hours, an hour less than on CBS. But unlike on TV, there will be zero outside commercials. With 20 minutes of ad time per hour now standard for many network telecasts, that means the 2022 ACMs will have almost exactly as much actual content as last year’s broadcast. And while there will be one or two breaks where Prime plans to run some promos for various Amazon products and shows, Stotksy promises those moments will add up to “maybe two” minutes in total. In addition, Prime Video will also stream the ACMs live in almost every territory in which it operates, allowing for more immediate global reach than during the CBS years.

➽ Instead of taking place in an arena or theater, as do most awards shows, this year’s ACMs are being held at the roughly 70,000-capacity Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. “It’s a huge creative canvas,” says Stotsky, adding that the larger acreage will allow producers to set up at least four different mini-stages for performances and awards presentations. That will help make up for the fact that, without frequent breaks for commercials, producers won’t have extra time to reset for new performances.

➽ Basing the show at a stadium will also give the entire night the vibe of a big in-person concert rather than a stuffy awards presentation. “We think of this as a concert first and foremost and secondarily as a television show,” Stotsky says. “We don’t have to have outros into the commercial breaks. We can go from act to act to act, or award to award to award … We don’t need to service anything other than the consumer.”

➽ While the number of awards presented at Monday’s show won’t decrease from past years, the time spent on awards will be reduced. “The way we’re going to do it is much more efficient,” Stotksy says, explaining that, for example, awards may be given out in pairs. Performers won’t have to forgo acceptance speeches, however, the exec insists. “We’re still highlighting and celebrating the year’s best work and the artists fans love and want to celebrate,” he says. “I think we’re going to do it in a slightly elevated way that will feel new and fresh.”

Not surprisingly, since it will now be an Amazon event, the ACMs will be monetized as well as (digitally) televised. “What’s been really unique for us on this event is the opportunity to not only build a great televisual experience for Prime Video, but to also tap into what’s referred to as the Amazon flywheel,” Stotsky says. That means that in addition to a live red carpet pre-show on Prime, there will be a so-called “shoppable” remix of the same hour on Amazon Live, the company’s influencer-powered version of QVC. Viewers will be able to snag merch from artists performing on the show or pre-order Parton’s new album and book, as well as Amazon Fashion products geared toward the country music audience. Amazon Music and Amazon-owned Twitch will also be heavily involved in promoting the show. “It really starts to fuel the fan experience across all of Prime. It deepens the connection,” Salke says. “What we’ve learned is that if we continue to lean into what people want and then give them more of it, that pays off for us. That’s always the goal. It’s never about just trying to figure out more ways to capitalize on it.”

While Amazon will be pushing hard to get audiences to tune in live on Monday, the ACMs will also be available for on-demand viewing after the show wraps. In addition, following a one-day exclusive window on Prime, a replay of the show will begin streaming on IMDb TV, Amazon’s free, ad-supported streaming service, as will a version with just the musical performances. “The cutdown will just remove those award beats, and it’ll be a nonstop concert event,” Stotsky says. Amazon Music is also planning to make the show available to its customers on March 10.

Because Amazon doesn’t reveal ratings, measuring whether the ACMs on streaming works won’t be a straightforward process. Stotsky says MRC and Prime “obviously want to deliver as many folks as possible” to the initial telecast and the replays, but that how much the show moves the needle in other areas — such as the aforementioned e-commerce integrations — will also be important. Either way, we’ll probably get some idea what Amazon thinks within a few months: The company only made a one-year licensing deal with MRC, so if the experiment disappoints, the company likely won’t be back for the 2023 show.

Is Amazon Paving the Way for Streaming Awards Shows?