Maybe the world was craving an Elton John-Lady Gaga duet. Or perhaps a Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic routine from a nearly naked Pink. Or it could be that viewers just like hearing bleeped rap songs.
Whatever the case, the 35% ratings surge for Sunday's Grammy extravaganza on CBS -- nearly 26 million viewers, or about as many as for Fox's singing smash "American Idol," according to early results from the Nielsen Co. -- has the TV business asking: Are award shows staging a comeback?
Over most of the last decade, virtually every award show, from the Oscars to the Golden Globes, saw its numbers droop, in many cases to record lows. Critics argued that there were just too many of the things. The formats were said to be stale. Too many honorees viewers had never heard of before were showing up and babbling the usual thanks to their agents, parents and teachers.
But in a reversal that has analysts and network researchers groping for explanations, award shows are suddenly on an upswing. Last month, NBC's Golden Globe telecast climbed 14%, to nearly 17 million viewers. CBS' Emmy telecast in September ticked up 8%, to 13.3 million. Last year's Oscars rebounded 13%, to 36.3 million, after a dismal performance in 2008.
Some observers say that producers have simply gotten better at tailoring award shows to viewer tastes. That may have been especially true for the Grammys, which won plaudits for relatively fast pacing despite its 3 1/2 -hour running time. Segments such as an unusual 3-D tribute to Michael Jackson burned up Twitter and other message services. Voters may have helped by honoring mainstream acts such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncè.
"Celebrity obsession is at an all-time high," said John Rash, an analyst for ad firm Campbell-Mithun, and the Grammys provide "an easy, accessible escape."
Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media, said producers have "caught up with the public taste. . . . They've cut the material that turns off viewers, like the banter" presenters have sometimes engaged in before handing out awards.
There may be also be some subtler factors at work. As viewers grow more accustomed to watching video online and on DVRs, award shows offer one of the few remaining opportunities to be part of a live or nearly live event -- to enjoy the communal experience TV viewers once took for granted.
Rash believes the recent award-show trends bode well for the March 7 Oscar telecast. That may prove especially true if, as many believe, the list of nominees to be announced Tuesday morning includes major nods for James Cameron's smash hit "Avatar."
In 1998, Oscar ratings hit a record 55 million viewers when another Cameron film, "Titanic," was honored.