Rethinking award shows after COVID: How social distancing has made some things better

A funny thing crossed my mind while watching the Academy of Country Music Awards on September 16: maybe social distancing isn’t all bad. Of course, I don’t mean that COVID-19 isn’t all bad. The disease is terrible, and I hope it’s soon cast into the fires of Mount Doom. But if and when we’re able to go back to safely gathering indoors with large crowds, I hope award shows don’t get rid of everything from this era, because some of their safety adaptations make for a pretty good show.

Perhaps it’s the socially anxious introvert in me, but I appreciated the intimacy of the ACM performances: Taylor Swift alone with her guitar singing “Betty,” Luke Combs in an empty Bluebird Cafe doing “Better Together” and Trisha Yearwood paying tribute to country music professionals who have died in the past year by performing “I’ll Carry You Home,” among other memorable performances.

There were awkward moments, as well: the winners understandably seemed uneasy giving acceptance speeches to empty rooms. And that’s the part I definitely don’t want to keep. Part of the joy of an awards show, for the winners and the audience, is for creative artists to bask in the spotlight in front of their fans and peers. And surely the artists would be happier getting the feedback of a live crowd during musical performances too. That’s why you get into this business in the first place after all — to entertain.

But beyond that, these scaled back shows have proved that some circumstances don’t need so much pomp. The Daytime Emmys this past summer were a satisfying, streamlined affair; without so much production bloat, there was time to celebrate the industry by showing more clips of the nominated material. And the Creative Arts Awards for the Primetime Emmys have streamed online, opening up the industry’s craftspeople to recognition in front of a wider audience, though it would certainly be nicer if they could have that audience while also getting to share physical space with their colleagues.

The pandemic is forcing the entertainment industry to relearn what it thought it knew about putting on a show, and sometimes it works better than others. For instance, the MTV Video Music Awards telecast went smoothly, but didn’t always hit the mark when trying to replicate its usual grandiose spectacle with pre-taped comedy bits and green screens. But the limitations imposed by the pandemic are also an opportunity to rethink business as usual when it comes to how the business celebrates itself. We want to gather again as a community, but when it comes to the action onstage, sometimes less is more.

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