Ratings sink as viewers go surfing

Times Staff Writer

The show went on as scheduled, but without some of its more glamorous trappings and with war on the public’s mind, the 75th annual Academy Awards fell to a historic low in the ratings, with an estimated 33.1 million people watching at any given moment.

Those preliminary results, based on Nielsen Media Research data, represent a 21% decline versus last year’s average of 41.8 million, which had been the least-watched Oscars since 1997. At least one key factor was a record-high level of channel-surfing, as viewers strayed to look for reports from war in Iraq.

That conflict has depressed ratings for other programming as well. Viewing of the NCAA basketball tournament -- shifted to ESPN for part of its opening round due to war coverage -- is also down more than 20% compared with last year, based on preliminary figures.

Similarly, part of ABC’s telecast of the Lakers-San Antonio basketball game Sunday was switched back and forth to ESPN, the Disney-owned network’s sister cable channel, while ABC provided extended war updates.


ABC put the best face on the Oscar numbers, noting that 62 million people viewed at least a portion of the 3 1/2-hour telecast, which out-rated all other recent award showcases, such as the Emmys and Golden Globes. The scaled-back red carpet arrivals and delay of Barbara Walters’ traditional interview special also detracted from what is usually a night of programming built around the awards.

But there’s no ignoring the “churn” rate -- that is, the number of people channel-surfing, likely in pursuit of news updates during the telecast -- which was the highest ever recorded, up about 10% over recent years. “What that basically means is a lot of people tuned in

Network officials, in fact, say a pattern appears to be emerging, with viewers more actively flitting around the dial to see what other stations are reporting on the war.

Although some ratings effect was expected, the Oscars’ performance is nevertheless a setback for struggling ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, despite what is doubtless some relief in getting a well-received broadcast on at all. The show is traditionally the highest-rated event other than the Super Bowl, providing ABC a major platform to promote its prime-time lineup.


Regarding the ratings, academy President Frank Pierson said, “I’m not surprised at that. People are interested in so many other things. I think we all anticipated that this would be a low year.” Pierson also speculated about whether “widespread media predictions that there would be a lot of [political] speeches from the podium” had any effect on people’s decision to watch.

A spokeswoman for American Express, one of the major sponsors of the Oscar show, said the company “knew there would probably be some drop-off, but we had a commitment to go forward with it.”

The overall audience for the Oscars hit an all-time high in 1998, when the blockbuster “Titanic” was a contender: That year, the show averaged more than 55 million viewers. A shortage of nominees that are major box office hits could also have contributed to this year’s diminished tune-in, with only best picture winner “Chicago” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” having reached the $100-million plateau.

The ratings decline was less severe locally. Nearly 31% of all homes in the Los Angeles viewing area, or more than 1.6 million households, had KABC-TV on at any given moment during the awards -- a 17% decrease from 2002, and roughly 50% above the national average. The Oscars capped a weekend in which the major networks largely returned to regular programming after a period of wall-to-wall coverage in the early hours of the war, with at least an hour of news in prime time and periodic Iraq updates.


Virginia Hunt, program director for the local Viacom-owned duopoly KCBS and KCAL, said viewers seemed to appreciate CBS’ balance of news and basketball, based on a higher-than-usual volume of calls logged by the station.

“I actually got pretty positive responses,” Hunt said, citing one caller who thanked her, saying, “ ‘You’re creating such a nice viewer comfort zone for me.’ ”

The cable news channels, which witnessed elevated ratings in immediate response to the onset of war, have stuck with round-the-clock war coverage but reintroduced limited commercial breaks into their lineups over the weekend.



Times staff writer Robert Welkos contributed to this story.