The SAG Awards want 'the Netflix bump.' Success could transform awards season

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 26th, 29th ANNUAL SCREEN ACTORS GUILD AWARDS - Fran Drescher onstage at the 29th Annual Screen Actors Guild Award, held at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles on February 26th, 2023. - (Photo by Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher onstage at the 2023 Screen Actors Guild Awards. The 2024 edition will be the first to stream live on Netflix. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When winners take the stage to deliver their acceptance speeches at the 30th Screen Actors Guild Awards on Saturday, they won't need to worry about being played off the stage to ensure advertisers have time to peddle their wares. Viewers won't have to time their bathroom breaks and snack runs around the commercials.

Indeed, there won't be any commercials at all: For the first time ever, the show will be streamed live on Netflix.

For the SAG Awards, a key precursor on the road to the Oscars voted on by more than 119,000 members of the actors' union, the move to Netflix, with its 260 million global subscribers, represents a significant boost after decades of struggling to reach a wide viewership on cable.

"This is a milestone for what started out as the little engine that could 30 shows ago," says actor JoBeth Williams, who serves as chair of SAG's Awards Committee, which is charged with oversight of the show. "It's an exciting new format for us, and it's bringing us into what's happening now, what the world wants to see."

Last year's SAG Awards was streamed live on Netflix's YouTube and social media channels, reaching some 1.5 million viewers. Now, in hosting the ceremony on the Netflix platform itself, with its vast reach and formidable marketing muscle, the streaming giant could bring the SAG Awards to a far larger audience than ever before. (And that's even before you consider the drawing power of the "Barbenheimer" phenomenon.)

Faced with a diminishing broadcast audience, other awards shows have sought homes on streaming services, including the Academy of Country Music Awards on Prime Video. But as the first major film and TV awards show to be carried live by a streaming giant, SAG's move to Netflix could portend changes to come for the entire awards show landscape, including the Oscars themselves.

"I think this establishes a new model for this kind of show," says Screen Actors Guild Awards executive producer Jon Brockett, who is producing this year's awards alongside Baz Halpin, Mark Bracco and Linda Gierahn of Silent House Productions. "If watching on a streamer ends up being a format that other people take on as well, so be it. But our goal is always just engaging the audience and making a fun, entertaining show."

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The show's producers say the move to streaming will invest the show, which is scheduled to run two hours and will include a Lifetime Achievement Award for Barbra Streisand, with a greater sense of momentum while allowing for more freedom in the format.

"On broadcast, someone wins an award, a Steadicam follows them offstage, and that's generally when you've got to cut to the commercial," says Bracco. "We don't have to do that. We're excited to be able to have these interstitials where we'll be able to follow the winner backstage and break that fourth wall and give viewers at home that behind-the-scenes feeling."

SAG-AFTRA was in the process of looking for a home for its awards ceremony in 2022 when TNT had signaled it did not plan to renew its licensing agreement to air the show, the labor union said at the time. The SAG Awards had been on TNT since 1998, but ratings were declining in its last six years on the cable network and TBS, with the exception of a post-pandemic bump in 2022. That year saw 1.84 million aggregated viewers on TBS and TNT, according to Nielsen.

Streaming the SAG Awards represents the latest in Netflix's efforts to increase its library of live events, bringing large audiences onto its platform simultaneously for appointment-style viewing. Some of the streamer’s previous live events include Chris Rock’s live comedy special and celebrity golf tournament “The Netflix Cup.”

“We're super excited about SAG,” said Brandon Riegg, vice president of nonfiction series, at a Netflix press event in Hollywood last month. “As award shows go, this one to me is the most public-facing, public-friendly. It's celebrities. It's stars that you love to see, your favorite shows and movies and whatnot on a global stage. … I think live is a terrific tool in terms of expanding the portfolio — it's applicable to all the content genres that we have.”

Still, the timing of the partnership is slightly awkward. This year's SAG Awards arrive in the wake of a grueling summer of dual Hollywood strikes led by writers and actors, many of whom picketed daily outside Netflix offices. Some of the major issues in the strike involved data transparency among streaming services and how those platforms reward writers for hit shows. Some even deemed the labor action the “Netflix strike.”

Planning for this year's SAG Awards was put on hold during the work stoppage. "As producers of the show, we had to go into basically hibernation during that period because we didn't know if the show was ever going to go forward," Williams says.

Read more: From Chris Rock to the SAG Awards. Why Netflix is dabbling in livestreaming

Now that the strike is over, Williams believes union members are ready to set aside any lingering misgivings about the streaming giant and move forward. "I don't expect to have negative feedback about the fact that it's on Netflix," she says. "When the strike was resolved, we went back to work with Netflix, and they've been very accommodating and very collaborative. Naturally we all have to work with the people that we've been striking against — that's what our business is."

As part of their multiyear agreement, Netflix paid SAG-AFTRA around $7 million to license the SAG Awards, according to two people familiar with the deal who were not authorized to discuss it.

"This is inaccurate," a Netflix spokesperson, who did not disclose any details about the pact, said in a statement to The Times. SAG-AFTRA declined to comment on the terms of the deal.

Analysts say that the partnership represents a potential win for both parties.

“If they can show that it got significantly more people than watched it last year on YouTube, what's to stop them from going to the Producers Guild Awards or even Independent Spirit Awards?” said Travis Knox, associate professor of producing at Chapman University. “If Netflix can legitimize it and get a bigger audience, maybe they created a new niche.”

Parrot Analytics industry strategist Brandon Katz said that about 58% of Netflix’s audience in the U.S. is in the 13- to 29-year-old age range, according to his firm’s data.

“This is a chance to bridge that gap, potentially convert some remaining older linear subscribers into streaming subscribers and perhaps introduce the SAG Awards to a slightly younger audience as well, so I think there’s a lot of potential upside and benefits,” Katz said.

“I do think, for the longevity of the SAG Awards and the hopeful cultural relevance that it maintains, moving to Netflix is probably a better move than remaining on TNT as pay TV’s decline continues to rapidly accelerate,” he added.

It remains to be seen how many people will tune in live to watch the SAG Awards; the show will remain on the platform for 28 days after it streams, and some may choose to watch it on replay later. Regardless, some industry observers say they sense increased buzz around this year's SAG Awards in part because it’s going to be on Netflix.

Read more: SAG Awards nominations: What the biggest snubs and surprises mean for the Oscar race

“We have seen the Netflix bump in full effect for licensed linear series, everything from ‘Breaking Bad’ to ‘Suits,’ as well as canceled linear series that Netflix rescued such as ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Manifest,’” Katz said. “At the end of the day, Netflix is the largest global TV network, and that seemingly comes with a lot of programming upside.”

Netflix said it would promote the SAG Awards similar to how it would promote other live events. The platform takes into consideration what users have watched before to make recommendations and promote trailers.

Streaming a show live comes with significant technical challenges, however. Both Netflix and SAG hope to avoid a repeat of the technical hiccups that bedeviled last year's reunion episode of reality dating series “Love Is Blind.” Viewers had logged on to Netflix in droves to watch the reunion live, but the stream was plagued by problems and ultimately scrapped, forcing many to wait until the next day to watch a taped version.

Speaking to The Times in December, a Netflix executive called the “Love Is Blind” reunion snafu a “humbling moment,” adding that the company has been focused on improving its technical capabilities. “We’ve learned from that and evolved from it,” the executive said.

The SAG Awards' producing team is fully confident the show, which will return to its traditional home at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium, will go off without a hitch and bring some needed freshness to a format that has struggled to adapt with changing times.

"The SAG Awards is incredibly unique — this is by actors, for actors," says Halpin. "From the moment the guests walk into the room, we want to create something that feels magical and elegant and sophisticated. To do the first live show on Netflix feels like a perfect evolution of award shows. Netflix likes to take big swings and reach for the stars."

Times staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.