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SAG Awards Glimpse the Future of Awards Shows: Streaming, Swearing, and Surprises

Next year, Netflix. This year, the Screen Actors Guild Awards moved to streaming and carried on with business as usual — save for a few key twists.

SAG Awards 2023 Jamie Lee Curtis 29th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards

Jamie Lee Curtis 2023 SAG Awards

Michael Buckner for Variety

Heading into the 2023 SAG Awards, the typically tense build-up to one of Hollywood’s major ceremonies was noticeably absent. For one, many of the film races had started to ossify around the perceived Oscar frontrunners (as tends to happen with all those precursors). But taking a step back, the SAG Awards are unlike other televised awards shows in that they avoid typical stressors. There’s no host, and thus no pressure to pick the right one. They’re never a lack of star power, being an awards show completely and utterly devoted to the widest-known talent. And when it comes to ratings, the SAG ceremony doesn’t demand the same figures as the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys. A longtime partner of TNT (and TBS), viewership expectations were almost always relegated to limited cable ratings instead of the booming potential on broadcast. (NBC aired the SAGs for three years, but those initial telecasts are long forgotten.)

This year, the SAG Awards didn’t air at all: Following a deal with Netflix to stream the event starting in 2024, the 2023 show was relegated to the service’s YouTube page. Viewers had to know where to find them, how to watch them, and — as always — actually wanted to watch the ceremony instead of their routine Sunday night entertainment. Since 2011, the SAG Awards has never pulled more than 5.2 million viewers (which it hit in 2013) and totaled just over and just under 2 million viewers in 2020 and 2022, respectively. With those numbers and these restrictions in mind, the pressure was off: This ceremony was free to be built for the people in the room.

For the most part, that (purely speculative) intention held out. The 2023 SAG Awards looked a lot like most of their live ceremonies. There was a cold open featuring Steve Martin and Martin Short riffing on “The Banshees of Inisherin,” but there wasn’t a host. Actors opened the show speaking directly to camera from their dinner chairs, ending on some variation of “I’m an actor.” Awards were doled out one after the other — no interruptions for song-and-dance numbers or random video montages — and actors stepped to the microphone over and over again to talk shop. (Credit to Jason Bateman for being so sharp with his self-effacing instructional banter that he got his co-presenter, Emily Blunt, to break.)

As has long been the case, the SAG Awards moved swiftly, but didn’t rush; the clock was running on winners (and commented on often), but the play-off music never intruded on the evening. The show leaned on speeches and its guild members, most of whom are eager to show off their craft to a room full of fellow narcissists actors. It ended only a few minutes north of two hours and featured a number of wins both surprising and historic. But it also gave the slightest glimpse at what awards shows may look like in the near future. The SAG Awards are headed for Netflix next year, and the Golden Globes are still shopping for a new home. The Oscars are locked into ABC through 2028, but with ratings falling, will Disney push to stream the ceremony on Disney+ or Hulu? If so, what will change? What will awards shows look like if they’re housed on a streaming service instead of traditional TV networks?

The SAG Awards gave us a glimpse — a year early — and I have to say: I like what I’m seeing.

And hearing. Jamie Lee Curtis dropped a muted F-bomb in her opening “I’m an actor” monologue (and mouthed a silent “shut the fuck up” when her name was announced), but everyone heard Michelle Yeoh’s overwhelmed “Fuck!” when she won. Curse words were peppered throughout the show, and the lack of censors mucking up punchlines made for an all-the-more enjoyable viewing experience. It felt looser, more relaxed — like a good party should.

Contributing to that same vibe were the unedited speeches. Yes, the clock made itself known to each winner, but a) had they not mentioned it, the audience at home would’ve remained in the dark, and b) that’s because the ticking clock was never enforced. Sam Elliott, a surprise winner for “1883,” wondered what he could say in 45 seconds to express his gratitude “after just receiving the most meaningful acknowledgement of my 55-year career?” His answer: whatever he liked! Elliott’s sincerely read his acceptance speech, stopping for meaningful pauses and chosen points of emphasis like the great performer he is — and he was able to do so because the producers backstage never cued the DJ or cut his mike.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 26: (L-R) Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, and Michelle Yeoh speak onstage during the 29th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at Fairmont Century Plaza on February 26, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, and Michelle Yeoh at the SAG Awards

Getty Images

Streaming makes this courtesy possible. Sure, some awards producers think a long show is a problem and do everything they can to end on time. But really, they have to end on time to avoid cutting into local news and affiliate programming. Traditional TV runs on a tight schedule that streaming television doesn’t have to concern itself with, and since awards show are actually better when they’re allowed to be as indulgent as the room allows, longer shows also tend to make for better at-home viewing.

That’s especially true when the awards being doled out end up with a few unexpected recipients — and the 2023 SAG Awards over-delivered there. On the TV front, Jessica Chastain (“George and Tammy”) upset Emmy winner Amanda Seyfried (“The Dropout”) in the night’s first announcement. Then Elliott beat out Evan Peters (“Dahmer”), and Jason Bateman (“Ozark”) topped Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) and Adam Scott (“Severance”). On the film side, Jamie Lee Curtis (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) was as shocked as the rest of us hearing her name called instead of Angela Bassett (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”), before Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”) stirred up the Best Actor race with a win over Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”) and Austin Butler (“Elvis”).

Toss in big, emotional moments from Ke Huy Quan (the undeniable darling of the 2023 awards circuit), Jennifer Coolidge (who feels like the favorite in every category simply because voters need to hear another speech), and Michelle Yeoh (“My mom will be eternally grateful to you” — come on, what a great tribute), and the SAG Awards excelled at an awards show’s most fundamental function: giving out awards.

When it comes to the future of awards shows on streaming, plenty of questions still linger. How much will streamers actually invest when they need to put on a bigger show, like the Oscars or Grammys, where a host and live performances are integral to elevating the occasion? No matter where an awards show debuts, ratings will always be a sticking point, and the audience for live events is simply much smaller on streaming. (Just look at the NFL: One of the few broadcasts seemingly immune to declining viewership still lost a chunk of its audience after moving Thursday Night Football from Fox to Prime Video.) Will enough viewers make the jump to keep these ceremonies viable? Will limited exposure threaten the impact of these awards, which aim to boost awareness around the movies and shows they’re honoring? Will there be more experimentation in order to attract new viewers? Will there be enough loyalty to the tenets of awards shows to keep die-hard fans satisfied?

Next year, when the SAG Awards officially move to Netflix — not just Netflix’s YouTube page — we’ll start to get answers to some of these questions. Until then, the 2023 ceremony offered plenty of hope for the future.

Grade: B+

The 2023 SAG Awards were held Sunday, February 26 in Los Angeles, CA and streamed on Netflix’s YouTube channel.

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