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Analysis: Are Spike TV’s VGAs Good For Gaming?

Analysis: Are Spike TV’s VGAs Good For Gaming?

December 15, 2010 | By Chris Morris

December 15, 2010 | By Chris Morris
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[Analyzing the weekend's Spike TV Video Game Awards, Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris reveals this year's dwindling ratings for the show -- despite "minimal signs of improvement" in quality and diversity.]

It wouldn't be the holidays if the gaming world weren't in an uproar about U.S. cable channel Spike TV's Video Game Awards. For the eighth consecutive year, the network has raised the ire of industry gadflys and gamers, who feel the show does more to set back video games than celebrate them.

Ratings for the VGAs are never spectacular. This year’s installment, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, attracted 627,000 viewers, according to Nielsen. That’s 20,000 fewer than last year and marks the fourth consecutive year of overall declines. Since 2007, ratings for the show have fallen 32 percent.

There were some improvements in key demographics this year, though. Adults 18-49 were up 12 percent - from 370K to 450K in 2009; Adults 18-34 were up 5 percent from 278K to 292K and Men 18-34 - Spike's sweet spot - showed an impressive 15 percent climb from 281K to 251K.

I’ve spent a number of years in and around the television industry – which gives me some insight into this sort of production that others might not have. Before I dive into that, though, let’s get a couple of disclaimers out of the way.

I should mention that back in 2004, I was a member of the Board of Advisors for the VGAs, helping select the nominees and winners.

(I declined the opportunity to rejoin in 2005, as I had an ethical problem with being asked to include games that were still a month away from release in my nominations. Spike has not asked me back since – though I understand the selection process has changed.)

Also, the parent firm of Gamasutra runs the Game Developers Choice Awards alongside GDC – in some ways a competing awards show. I personally have nothing to do with those, though.

Ok, lawyers and ethicists happy? Let’s get into this.

The VGAs, at their heart, are a marketing vehicle. Like any program on any television network, they exist for one purpose: to make money. (And yes, that purpose is no different at my former home of CNN or any other media outlet.)

Short of breaking into the accounting office at Viacom, it’s hard to say how profitable they are, but the fact that the network continues to air them – and make them more elaborate – as viewership declines is a pretty good indicator that the VGAs aren’t a charity venture.

Those hyper-annoying Character of the Year awards – subtitled “Your Way. Your Say. Powered by Burger King”? That’s the sad reality of television today. It might be a bit more in your face than, say, a Kinect product placement in “How I Met Your Mother,” but basic cable has less pushback power.

It pays the bills – and considering that “Alan Wake” had ads that were just as obvious, it’s disingenuous for gamers to snipe.

Ironically, those world premiere videos that, in many ways, are the heart of the show, don’t carry a charge for publishers, despite their high profile ad time. They do, however, attract an audience, helping Spike keep ad rates up.

“Spike does not charge publishers to have their games world premiered at the ‘Video Game Awards’,” the company said in a statement. “World premieres are chosen based on each game’s merits … [and publishers] bring the biggest titles to us to world premiere for the show.”

Finances don’t mean much to the core gamer watching the show, though.

Jeff Green, a longtime video game journalist and now director of editorial and social media at PopCap Games, had some very harsh words about this year’s VGAs on his blog.

"It was an embarrassment and an insult to the industry it is supposedly saluting,” he wrote, later adding “the publishers get their free ads, the awards show gets its exclusives: Everybody wins! Everybody, that is, except for the poor gamer, who may have naively turned on the show expecting to see something with a modicum of respect and sincerity for the industry it was supposedly saluting."

I can’t disagree with a lot of what Jeff had to say. His criticisms were tough but fair – which is part of the reason they’ve gone viral over the last couple of days. That said, while games have certainly gone mainstream, gamers themselves are still very much a niche audience.

The person who is invested enough in this industry to want to dedicate a Saturday night to watching this sort of program is a rare beast. (If he or she weren't, you probably wouldn’t see the show buried on a Saturday.)

Tailoring a show that would truly satisfy that audience would likely not be riveting television. Gaming is a fascinating hobby and lifestyle for pretty much anyone who’s bothering to read this, but because of its interactive nature, it’s a hard sell on TV – especially when you’re profiling games that have been out for months, meaning there’s nothing new to show players.

However, there is enough overlap between core gamers and Spike’s core audience – young men who can’t get enough UFC or porn references – to convince Spike executives to move forward with the show each year. The steak might be small, but they can crank up the sizzle and cater to those viewers. The rest of us get sucked in along the way.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the VGAs do have some positive benefits for the industry – beyond the “E3 in December” aspect they’ve taken on in the past couple of years. For right or for wrong, a televised awards show makes an industry more significant in people’s minds.

And while plenty of people complained about Saturday’s show, it was infinitely better than Spike’s initial efforts with the VGAs. Anyone remember the WWE wrestling match that took place at the show? The “Game of the Year” award going to Madden NFL 2004 instead of Beyond Good or Evil or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic? Now that was a show to get upset about.

Run now by Geoff Keighley, the VGAs have evolved and – in terms of the winners, at least – improved dramatically. It may not be great TV and it fails to give the industry the respect it deserves, but it’s not as bad as it was and shows minimal signs of improvement each year.

And until an authoritative industry insider – whether it’s the Game Developers Choice Awards or some other party such as the AIAS, which has had previous 'highlights show' deals with IFC – is able to find a television outlet to carry its ceremony in full (and sex that show up enough to draw an audience), Spike will remain the only high-profile game in town for televised game awards.


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