You can lead audiences to a half-dressed, aging pop star, but you can’t make them watch.
That’s the lesson MTV has to be taking from this year’s Video Music Awards, which clocked their lowest ratings on record despite a surprise appearance from Madonna wearing a one-piece leather thong bustier and fishnets.
The 63-year-old’s fellow celebrities showered her with accolades for the cameo.
Actor Laverne Cox posted an image of Madge to Instagram with the caption, “Madonna was a huge inspiration to me growing up. I had Madonna posters on my walls in high school and college … Strong empowered women have always inspired me. The VMA opening with Madonna was beautiful tonight.”
Comedian Billy Eichner replied to Madonna’s own post commemorating her appearance with a series of heart emojis. And singer-songwriter Sarah Hudson commented, “F***ing queen.”
But average Americans were evidently less impressed. While the moment went viral on social media, the actual viewership for the show proved once again that Twitter is not real life. The ratings for this year’s VMAs plunged 17% in the key demo of adults between 18 and 49 from 2020 and hit an all-time low in viewers of all ages.
Though ViacomCBS, MTV’s parent network, claims the show increased “reach,” it didn’t specify how it arrived at this conclusion as its numbers are based on a proprietary metric derived from a combination of Nielsen ratings and internal digital data that the company calls “Total Minutes Consumed” (TMC).
Traditional ratings, however, leave no doubt that viewership for the VMAs once again hit bottom, drawing only 900,000 viewers for the live run of the show. It marked the first time in MTV’s history that fewer than one million people tuned in to its flagship awards program. For comparison, the VMAs drew nearly 10 million viewers in 2015 and more than 11 million in 2010.
Neither Madonna, nor the much younger acts following in her controversial footsteps, like Lil Nas X, were able to arrest the downward trajectory the show has been on for years.
MTV can take comfort that it’s not alone in its award show troubles.
As The Daily Wire has reported, the Oscars also hit a new bottom in 2021, plummeting nearly 60% from the already record-low ratings the show posted in 2020. The 2021 Grammys, too, reached a record low, bringing in nearly 10 million fewer viewers than the year before.
A New York Times story on the Oscars quoted one producer who admitted that celebrities sounding off on politics has likely played a role in audience disinterest. “Increasingly,” the Times reported, “the ceremonies are less about entertainment honors and more about progressive politics, which inevitably annoys those in the audience who disagree. One recent producer of the Oscars, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential metrics, said minute-by-minute post-show ratings analysis indicated that ‘vast swaths’ of people turned off their televisions when celebrities started to opine on politics.”
Time will tell whether the Emmys, which air Sunday night on CBS, will suffer a similar fate.