Oscar Ratings Collapse: What a 16-Percent Drop Means for the Live Telecast

ABC has little to lose while the Oscars organization may be setting itself up for a rough future

Racial controversy, a tight match between “Birdman” and “Boyhood” and a new host in Neil Patrick Harris just weren’t enough to give ABC’s Oscars telecast a winning ratings boost over last year.

In fact, the audience dropped significantly. Pulling in 36.6 million total viewers on Sunday night — 6.4 million fewer than 2014’s 10-year high, according to overnight numbers – the audience represents a six-year low in total viewers for the awards show and a 16 percent drop in viewership.

By comparison, two of the other biggest live televised events this year saw increases in viewership. January’s Golden Globes telecast snagged 20.9 million viewers – a 10-year high for the show. The Globes were hosted by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey and gave “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” the top movie prizes.

Meanwhile, the Super Bowl drew a stunning 114.4 million viewers earlier this month on NBC – making it the most-watched broadcast in TV history.

Those shows prove that live viewing isn’t necessarily falling every year and people will show up for the right combination of participants, performers or nominees.

So what happened at the Oscars? There are a few probable reasons the show would see such a drop:

1. Nominees lack box office might.
The biggest culprit appears to be the movies, for the most part an eclectic mix of mainly quirky and thoughtful indie films that did fair-to-middling business at the box office. However artful, they didn’t generate much mainstream interest at multiplexes or for Sunday night’s show. One can’t help but wonder how the show would have done with “Gone Girl,” “Interstellar” and “The LEGO Movie” in the mix.

2. No big watershed moments.
A big moment can bring in new viewers and hold on to them as the show goes on — especially now with the speed that social media can make a moment viral. Sunday’s show had nothing close to last year’s star-studded selfie with Ellen DeGeneres.

3. The longer the show, the less people are watching.
A long show can be a ratings killer. People begin falling like flies as the show reaches its third hour. So, going over can be deadly to the its numbers. This year’s show ran 48 minutes over its allotted time — eight minutes longer than last year’s telecast.

The decline doesn’t worry ABC, however, which has the upper hand in the broadcasting deal, TheWrap has learned. Regardless of incremental ratings falls, the network wouldn’t be able to program anything that could come near to the amount of live eyeballs that the Oscars telecast attracts.

Even when the show runs over its three hours of allotted time, it doesn’t bother the network — even though it has plenty viewers complaining on social media — for the very same reason as above: It’s a huge amount of viewers.

And when the show doesn’t perform to the same level of ratings as the previous year, still the network doesn’t bat an eyelid. As apparently, ABC doesn’t guarantee advertisers that the show will match previous numbers.

That’s very different to when a series misses its goals and then must provide advertisers with what’s called “make-goods,” meaning networks give advertisers more time on other programs or on digital platforms to make up for the impressions purchased by advertisers that weren’t delivered.

So, why do advertisers put up with it? Again, there are very few TV events that get the amount of live viewership that the Oscars receive.

Another reason advertisers don’t mind a fall in the Oscars ratings is its attractive demo: an upscale, female audience with money to spend.

So, if both the network and the advertisers are OK with falling ratings, who’s getting the short end of the stick?

The Academy may find that it could pay for losing viewers in the long run. Its current contract with ABC runs through 2020. If it continues to lose viewers, that will take away some of its negotiating power when it’s time to renew.

Then, again, the Academy can offer up its viewership to the other networks if ABC attempts to use the ratings falls against the group.

Still, no one really wants to walk away from viewers. But, even if a contingent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wanted to make changes — like handing out technical awards off-screen in order to shorten the show’s length — the structure of the Academy makes that nearly impossible.

AMPAS decisions are made by a board of governors made up of three representatives from each of the 17 Academy branches, which means the below-the-line branches outnumber the actors, directors and writers by a substantial number. Those branches have always closed ranks to resist any attempt to move categories off the air, no matter how much ABC and viewers might wish for a more streamlined show. Those branches also now occupy most if not all of the officer positions, so they’ve got the power.

In fact, viewers (and the ratings they do or don’t deliver) seem to have very little power over anything that has to do with movie’s biggest night.

Steve Pond, Tony Maglio and Todd Cunningham contributed to this report.

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