A higher-than-usual suspense quotient and the best picture coronation of box-office champion "Gladiator" failed to boost ratings for Sunday's Oscar telecast, as an estimated 42.9 million people watched the ceremony at any given minute--the smallest Academy Awards audience since "The English Patient" was crowned in 1997.
The thumbs-downs vote reflects a 7% drop from a year ago, according to preliminary data from Nielsen Media Research. Those results could be revised slightly today, when final prime-time tallies for the week are issued.
In terms of the percentage of U.S. households tuning in, Sunday's broadcast--viewed in 26.2% of homes--is the lowest-rated Academy Awards on record, dipping below the 1986 telecast. The overall audience is higher, however, because the population has steadily grown over theyears.
ABC estimates that more than 72 million people watched at least a portion of Sunday's broadcast, maintaining the Oscars' status as one of the year's most-watched events. The average audience--which, as with preliminary results distributed by ABC in 2000, measures viewing only through the last round of commercials--trails the Super Bowl and CBS' two-hour "Survivor" finale in August among programs broadcast during the last year.
Total viewing of the Academy Awards surged to an all-time high of 55.3 million in 1998, when "Titanic" sailed off with best picture. The Oscar telecast shifted to Sundays in 1999, allowing the show to begin a half-hour earlier, in part so the East Coast audience wouldn't have to wait until well past midnight to see the final award presented.
Locally, viewing of the Oscars on KABC-TV dropped 15% versus a year ago, with 36.7% of homes in the area--or just under 2 million households--tuning in the awards.
Ratings dropped sharply as well for the Oscar pre-shows, perhaps attributable to pleasant weather, with roughly 360,000 homes taking in KABC's local pre-show festivities, compared with not quite 200,000 viewing KTLA-TV and a competitive 180,000 watching Joan Rivers greet red carpet arrivals on E! Entertainment Television.
KABC's post-Oscar coverage, by contrast, actually improved over last year, with nearly 650,000 homes--or about 12% of those in the station's viewing area--staying tuned after Barbara Walters' interview special.