Ratings for the Academy Awards dropped to their lowest level in a decade Monday, as interest in the telecast appeared to fall off sharply outside big cities.
The Oscar ceremony, which aired on ABC for the 22nd consecutive year, nevertheless proved a major audience draw as more than 40 million people viewed an average minute of the show, according to Nielsen Media Research. That ranks as the year's top-rated entertainment special, with an audience of 73 million watching at least part of the 3 1/2-hour ceremony.
Still, the program's rating is the second-lowest ever, ahead of only the 1986 telecast, and represents a 10% decline compared to last year, when "Braveheart" was voted best picture.
Those results mark the Oscar show's second consecutive drop after a five-year stretch, beginning in 1991, when viewing either increased or was equal to the previous year.
"I can't imagine they're happy with this number," one rival network executive said Tuesday. "It goes to show you, it's all about the movies."
Most of this year's nominees were independent films, including best picture winner "The English Patient," "Shine," "Secrets & Lies" and "Fargo." Only one major studio release, "Jerry Maguire," was recognized in that category, having grossed more at the box office than the four competing films combined.
The fact that several of the movies up for an Oscar are considered art-house films was reflected in higher ratings for the show in the 36 major cities measured by Nielsen. Viewing in those areas, which tend to be more hospitable to such fare, was about 20% higher than the national average.
In Los Angeles, the Oscar broadcast was seen in more than 2.2 million households, or nearly 46% of all homes with television. That percentage was higher than in any other big city, with New York and Chicago weighing in at 39.5% and just under 41%, respectively.
ABC charged a record sum for advertising time in this year's telecast, with each 30-second commercial costing more than $800,000. That compares with a reported $1.2 million during the Super Bowl, annually the year's most-watched television event.
"Any show that can bring in 73 million viewers we're quite pleased with," an ABC spokeswoman said.