Down, but not out

Times Staff Writer

REACHED the morning after his 13th Oscar telecast, producer Gilbert Cates said he wasn't surprised by ratings showing an 8% to 10% decline in the show's audience compared with last year.

"It's about what I figured," Cates said Monday.

But the producer strongly defended host Jon Stewart, who's already been skewered by some critics for seeming out of his element in front of the Kodak Theatre crowd on Sunday and not as funny as on his home turf, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

"Jon was excellent," Cates said. "There's a lot of pressure on a first-time host. Finding your sea legs so you can do the job and pilot it through to the end is very tough." Cates pronounced Stewart's maiden voyage successful, "and the feedback I've gotten supports that." And Stewart's reaction? "He thought it went well," Cates said.

So why the ratings drop-off?

Cates pointed out that the films nominated for best picture simply weren't the ones viewers went to see last year. "All five of the best picture nominees together, I don't think [their box office] goes to $250 million. 'Narnia' goes to $800 million by itself," Cates said.

Sunday's Oscars drew an average audience of 38.8 million viewers, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. That's down 8% compared with last year's much-maligned show hosted by Chris Rock, and the second-lowest tally since 1987. (The lowest was 2003's ceremony, hosted by Steve Martin, that was marred by the start of the Iraq war; an average of 33 million viewers tuned in then).

In the key adults ages 18-49 demographic, the Oscars did a 13.9 rating, also down 8% compared with last year. Household ratings were off by 10%.

ABC estimates that 76.6 million viewers saw at least part of the 3 1/2 -hour telecast.

Cates said it was premature to think about next year's host. "First of all, I haven't been asked to do next year," he said.

But he did explain the thinking behind two widely panned production decisions on Sunday: The frequent use of film clips (one devoted to film noir, for example, another to socially conscious films) and the "underscoring" of soft music as winners gave acceptance speeches.

"I decided to have the clips," Cates said. "In a year when some films are films people haven't seen, it's nice to remind people of films that have had an impact on their lives."

Cates said he bets that many ordinary viewers enjoyed the clips, although "you have to deal with an understandably effete response to it" from critics.

As for playing soft music under the thank-you speeches, Cates said it was an experiment he may or may not repeat. He tried playing around with music using videotapes from past shows, and he liked the effect. Cates is still not sure the underscoring worked on Sunday, but he's glad he tried it anyway.

"Most of the acceptance speeches seem dry," he said, adding that the music was meant to provide a sense of "activity ... a unified thread" to the proceedings. "I knew there'd be a difference of opinion about it."

Cates thought plenty of other elements worked well, including the video parodies of attack ads and Tom Hanks in a spoof as a long-winded Oscar winner. He also threw a bouquet at the opening clip, a fast-paced sequence that digitally inserted movie icons such as Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and John Wayne into a fictional cityscape. "It's something if you TiVo'd the show, you should look at a couple of times."

Cates then hustled off to Junior's Deli in Westwood, where he was meeting some staffers for a traditional post-Oscars lunch. "We meet

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