The BET Awards Gave The Blueprint For How Pandemic-Era Awards Shows Can Succeed

When coronavirus effectively shut down the entertainment industry earlier this year, it looked like it might not only be a wrap for concerts and festivals but also for another industry staple: awards shows. While most artists and fans agree that awards don’t matter a whole bunch in the grand scheme of things, it’s still an annual “family reunion,” giving industry professionals a chance to gather and show each other public admiration, while for fans, it can be fun to see what surprises artists may bring to their performances, speeches, and afterparty interactions.

Over the weekend, BET held the 2020 BET Awards via a show entirely produced by its participants at home, from host Amanda Seales’ segments between the awards and performances to the acceptance speeches. This created a fascinating look at what could be the future of awards shows in the era of COVID-19. While the show was far from perfect, it was also somehow one of BET’s best awards shows, historically speaking, and if considered as a dry run for future shows like MTV’s VMAs or the CMAs, may provide something of a blueprint to build on for its successors. Here are a few things that worked and a few things that need some work.

What Worked:

Production Value

BET has long garnered criticism for the production quality of its shows. However, considering how every segment of the 2020 BET Awards was produced remotely, everything came together quite nicely this time around. Maybe it was because the show couldn’t be produced live, but there was more polish than usual, with each segment flowing quickly and efficiently to the next. The takeaway for future shows is to use the additional production time to edit together a seamless show that feels well put together.

Amanda Seales’ Throwback Hosting Segments

Amanda Seales made excellent use of her home green screen to pay homage to BET’s rich history, using backgrounds that revived sets from shows like Teen Summit, Rap City, and 106 & Park to bring a clever dimension to her hosting segments. She even managed to make some of her flatter jokes work for moment by throwing on a ComicView background to lampshade the cheesiness of her puns. If MTV or any of the other various shows off in the horizon get stuck utilizing a social distancing format, giving the host free run of historical shows and venues via green screen may add a sense of liveliness to the proceedings.

The Performances

Without the benefit of massive stages, light shows, pyrotechnics, and crowd interaction, artists on the show had to get creative with how they presented their performances. While Chloe x Halle have nailed down the art of turning their backyard tennis court into an extravagant showcase, Megan Thee Stallion and crew took to the desert in order to find space to spread out. Summer Walker and Usher used matching stages to embody their song’s theme, and multiple artists utilized the backdrop of protest to build some much-needed storytelling into their timely performances. This one’s obvious for future shows: get creative.

What Could Use Some Work:

Everything Was Almost Too Timely

While not speaking to the moment would have been negligent, BET’s show was almost gauche in the way it continually referenced current events and Black trauma. From DaBaby recreating the death of George Floyd to both Alicia Keys and John Legend offering somber piano ballads speaking to the dark days surrounding us, the show felt more despairing than hopeful. Things are dire, yes, but we could all use some escape — which is why sets like Chloe x Halle’s provided some much-needed levity. Balance is key; it’s important to highlight the moment but without getting too maudlin.

Not Having An Audience Sucked Some Energy From Performances

While the lack of an in-studio audience did help prevent some of the cornier jokes from falling flat and force artists to get more creative, after a while, the awards show started to feel almost like a music video countdown. It became harder and harder to forget that we were simply watching these pre-recorded performances on a screen. I’m not sure what future shows can do to mitigate this, because social distancing is more important now than ever as the number of COVID-19 cases spikes in the wake of weeks of civil unrest. Piping in crowd noise has been a tactic used to bring back live sporting events, but it’s gotten a mixed reception. If show producers can find some way to allow fans to react in real time — a la Instagram Live’s “like” hearts popping up along the side of the screen, it may help foster a feeling of communal viewing and make things a bitter more interactive.

Messaging Matters

Although not strictly a part of the show, per se, the ads BET ran during the commercial breaks were handy in highlighting the theme behind the show. However, when news surfaced of the network pulling an absolutely vital McDonald’s ad before the show, it sent another message — one that undermined the meaning behind much of the significance expressed elsewhere. Those concerns arose after the show’s well-intentioned performance by Kane Brown was derided as an “All Lives Matter” anthem. If future shows want to express importance sentiments of solidarity, they’ll need to read the proverbial room. Now isn’t the time for platitudes without action or for hypocritical, shareholder-appeasing moves. Know what needs saying, why it needs saying, and say it with your chest.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.