Billy Crystal may be nearly old enough for Medicare, but when it comes to Oscar ratings he can outrun hosts half his age.
Sunday's Academy Awards telecast — an old-fashioned (and sometimes critically savaged) paean to moviemaking hosted by the 63-year-old Crystal — delivered a total of 39.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That was up 4% compared with last year, when organizers made a largely unsuccessful bid to woo young crowds with the emcee duo of Anne Hathaway (born 1982) and her slightly older colleague, James Franco.
However, the show underperformed compared with CBS' Grammys telecast (39.9 million) earlier this month — only the second time that the Grammys has been more watched than the Oscars. Typically, the Oscars are the second biggest TV event of the year, behind the Super Bowl.
In the demographic advertisers care about most, adults ages 18 to 49, Crystal's telecast was flat, with an 11.7 rating.
Those comparisons might not sound like something that will give AARP magazine editors a major cover story, but it counts as a notable victory for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which risked looking as dated as a Monica Lewinsky joke by bringing Crystal back for his ninth stint as host. The comic and "City Slickers" star agreed to step in after Eddie Murphy, the originally designated host, pulled out in November.
The reviews were generally unimpressed, and at times quite scathing. Times TV critic Mary McNamara criticized Crystal's show as slow-moving and found the theme of saluting cinema's past "very, very familiar."
The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman wrote: "If the academy wanted safe, it got safe, but it also got what seemed like a lounge act that was entirely too chummy and self-satisfied." And Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times compared the show to an "AARP pep rally."
The academy has been struggling for years with an exodus of young viewers from the annual awards telecast, which it counts on for crucial licensing income. Critics said that hiring a sexagenarian host didn't exactly help project an image of youthfulness. In a filmed bit that opened the show, Crystal joked about the dilemma by greeting teen idol Justin Bieber, who said he was there to help capture "the 18 to 24 demographic."
In truth, Bieber was hardly needed, as the increasing use of social media meant that Sunday's show delivered big on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.
The ceremony generated 3.8 million comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, according to data generated by Cambridge, Mass.-based Bluefin Labs. That made this year's awards show the second most talked-about entertainment event on TV since the company began measuring and analyzing social media traffic several years ago. CBS' telecast of the Grammy Awards this month on Feb. 12 was the undisputed champ, with 13 million social media comments.
Comments on social media sites surrounding Sunday's ceremony and red-carpet arrivals surged nearly 300% over last year's gala. In 2011, there were fewer than 1 million comments.
The trend suggests that more people are turning to social media outlets while watching TV by using a "second screen" — a tablet, smartphone or laptop computer — to stay connected to their friends and followers who are also watching TV. ABC said that its Oscar app was downloaded 370,000 times this year — a 1,154% leap compared with last year.
Peaks in the social media traffic came at somewhat predictable intervals. The most talked-about moment came at the end of the evening when the nearly silent film "The Artist" won best picture.
Another item that generated intense Twitter interest: presenter Jennifer Lopez's peekaboo dress. Many viewers were certain they saw more of one of the "American Idol" judge's breasts than should have been visible on broadcast TV.
Asked about the controversy, Lopez's publicist provided a statement from Mariel Haenn, the star's stylist: "The dress fit perfectly to her every inch. There were cups built in and there's no chance that there were any … how do you say? 'Slips.' While the dress did give the illusion of sheer-ness, joke's on everyone who wishes they saw something."
More seriously, some viewers also complained about the quality of the audio throughout the broadcast, although the problem did not seem to affect all sets equally. ABC said technicians and executives were discussing the problem but had not reached any conclusions as of late Monday. An academy spokeswoman did not immediately return an email seeking comment.