MUSING on the dark themes in this year's crop of Oscar movies, host Jon Stewart wondered in his opening monologue at the 80th Academy Awards if Hollywood might need a collective hug.
But it may be academy officials who require comfort after glimpsing the ratings for Sunday's telecast on ABC.
The three-plus hour show plunged to a record-low average of 32 million total viewers, according to early figures from Nielsen Media Research.
That's a 21% dive from last year's ceremony, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, and the least-watched Oscars in more than 20 years. It sank even beneath the mark set by the 2003 Academy Awards show (33 million), which was marred by the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But the worst news for academy officials may have come amid the results for young viewers, the demographic most eagerly sought by TV executives. Sunday's show posted a 10.7 rating in the crucial demographic of adults ages 18 to 49, shedding fully one-quarter of that group compared with last year.
Much blame may rest with this year's Oscar contenders, which, as Stewart noted, consisted of exceptionally dark films with limited popular appeal, such as "There Will Be Blood" and the eventual best picture winner, "No Country for Old Men." Nothing lures viewers like blockbuster nominees; in 1998, the year "Titanic" won best picture, the TV audience numbered 55.2 million.
Schedule disruptions caused by the recent writers strike may also have hurt ABC's efforts to bang promotional drums for the show.
Whatever the cause, academy officials, who've spent years trying to bolster ratings, are now confronting an urgent crisis on how to stem further viewership declines. The Oscars were not so many years ago linked with the Super Bowl as the twin emperors of broadcast TV ratings, the only perennial programs that could be relied upon to attract great masses of viewers. But while this month's Super Bowl on Fox attracted a record-high of 97.4 million total viewers, the sheen is clearly off the Academy Awards.
By way of comparison, the Oscars are now routinely out-rated by Fox's "American Idol." Just last month, the singing contest delivered its season-to-date high of 33.5 million total viewers.
Thus ABC officials, accustomed to bragging about next-day Oscar numbers, could on Monday say only that the telecast humbled other award shows this season, including CBS' Grammy Awards (17.2 million) and NBC's strike-destroyed Golden Globes (6 million).
And Gilbert Cates, the Oscar broadcast's producer, said on Monday, "Obviously, there was no blockbuster picture that locked in a race." He added that the decline was due to "the lack of viewership in general with the strike going on."
"If not for the Grammy's drop [in ratings], I would be very distressed," he continued. "But that's the way it is."
Times staff writer Gina Piccalo contributed to this report.