For better or worse

ABC’s Oscar telecast Sunday was supposed to ride a wave of popular resurgence for award shows. But it looks as if viewers didn’t get that message.

Countering a trend toward higher ratings earlier this year for the Golden Globes, the Grammys and other awards, the critically scorned 83rd Academy Awards rounded up just 37.6 million total viewers, slumping 10% compared with last year, according to the Nielsen Co.

Worse, the Oscars also tumbled in the key category of adults ages 18 to 49, despite the youngest hosting combo in history with actors James Franco, 32, and Anne Hathaway, 28. The three-hour-plus show delivered an 11.7 rating, for an 11% drop in that advertiser-friendly category.

And then there were the reviews, which mostly ranged from the unimpressed to the downright brutal. Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara wrote that the co-hosts did everything expected of them but nevertheless “played it safe.” The Hollywood Reporter said it was one of the all-time worst Oscar telecasts. Comments on The Times’ Show Tracker site criticized Hathaway as overeager and Franco as too detached.


“When Billy Crystal showed up onstage, I found myself hoping that the producers had brought him in as an emergency replacement,” Shari Anne Brill, a longtime TV programming and research analyst, said of the hosting combo.

As harsh as much of the reaction was, the show’s numbers actually could have been far worse. This year’s ratings fared better than in 2009, when “Slumdog Millionaire” won (36.3 million) and in 2008, when the best picture prize went to “No Country for Old Men” (32 million).

In fact, though much of the criticism centered on the hosts, analysis has repeatedly shown that Oscar ratings are closely tied to the box-office performances of the best picture nominees. In 1998, the year the smash hit “Titanic” won, more than 57 million viewers tuned in.

This year’s winner, “The King’s Speech,” a surprise hit that has grossed more than $114 million, led a pack of successful-if-not-blockbuster films (“True Grit,” “The Fighter”) that foretold restrained Oscar viewership. Indeed, one of the few contenders with a huge gross, the animated “Toy Story 3" ($415 million), had no flesh-and-blood stars to root for. “There was no set-'em-on-fire movie or star up for an Oscar,” said Paul Levinson, a professor and pop culture expert at Fordham University.


This year’s Oscar viewership could have been diminished too by award fatigue and predictability. By the time the Oscars rolled around, audiences had largely seen this same parade of winners and acceptance speeches on other award programs. To combat this potentially damaging effect, the motion picture academy is weighing whether to hold its ceremony earlier in the award cycle.

In recent years, the academy has tried various tactics to boost viewership, including expanding the best picture field and experimenting with hosts.

Sunday’s outing would seem to suggest that hosts’ power to shake up viewing patterns remains fairly limited. Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University, argued that viewers are wearying of Hollywood self-congratulation and crude moments such as supporting actress winner Melissa Leo’s blurting of an obscenity (the language was bleeped out by ABC).

“The hosts last night were not that entertaining,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but the show wouldn’t have been saved even by better hosts.”