No, even those unpleasant cruise ship-esque song-and-dance numbers with Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron couldn’t get anyone to turn off their TV during the 81st Academy Awards. Nor did the rather predictable, unsurprising slate of winners or the Queen Latifah-blocked In Memoriam montage.
Just the opposite, in fact. ABC said the Sunday telecast was up 6% over last year's record low in Nielsen’s top 56 markets, making it TV’s most-watched entertainment telecast in two years.
Citing data from Nielsen Media Research, ABC revealed the Oscars averaged 36.3 million U.S. viewers between 8:30 p.m. and 11 p.m -- up 13% from last year but still the third smallest for the ceremony in the past 40 years. The show had a better 18-49 rating than shows like “American Idol” during four of its five prime-time half-hours, though the audience tapered out as the evening wore on.
And who was that audience? Many of the “Commie, Homo-Loving Sons of Guns” liberals Sean Penn referenced in his acceptance speech. Big cities in blue states tuned in most -- New York City had the highest preliminary rating, with Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston following behind. Kansas City had the fifth-highest rating.
Across the web, many who had been predicting that this year’s show would be the final nail in the coffin for the Academy Awards took a step back to try to figure out what the producers did right.
Many seemed to tune in to see if Heath Ledger would bring home a posthumous Best Supporting Actor award. And though some aspects of Bill Condon and Laurence Mark’s newly designed format fell flat -- like those song-and-dance numbers -- it seemed that some things really resounded with the audience.
Most viewers enjoyed the multi-presenter set-up for the four acting categories in which former winners gave tributes to the nominees before the prize was handed out. And Jackman’s hunk appeal may have helped to bring the female viewers back -- the show was up 11% among women 18-34 and 12% each among women 18-49 and 25-54.
“If you love movies, and especially actors, last night’s show was respectful and enlightening,” wrote Steve Mason on his blog at Big Hollywood. “If you are inclined to dislike awards shows and actors, then the telecast would be pretty dreary.”
But not all had been predicting Oscar doom-and-gloom this year.
For one thing, awards shows have been slightly on the uptick this season. The most recent broadcasts of both the Grammys and the American Music Awards saw a boost in the Nielsen ratings as well. Plus, this year’s rag-to-riches “Slumdog Millionaire” tale was far more inspiring than the Best Picture nominees last year, which included “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men” and mostly centered around depressing subject matter.
But perhaps more importantly, last year’s telecast -- the lowest-rated ever with only 32 million viewers -- had to emerge from the shadow of the months-long writers strike, which had only ended a couple of weeks before the show aired. This year, original episodes of shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives” have pushed ABC’s primetime ratings up by double-digit percentages in comparison to the first two months last year.
“I would be unsurprised if ABC’s ratings came in tomorrow morning and stunned naysayers … by climbing, simply due to last year’s writers strike hangover and a not-quite-as-bad-as-2008 lineup ,” James Hibberd wrote Sunday morning on his Live Feed blog for the Hollywood Reporter .
Over at his L.A. Times blog The Big Picture, Patrick Goldstein had his own theories about the ratings bounce. His thoughts: The critics were wrong, moviegoing is up this year, the musical genre is hip again or “Slumdog Millionaire” was truly something special.
“It was the most upbeat, crowd-pleasingly popular best picture winner since ‘Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ swept to victory in 2004,” he wrote. “‘Slumdog’ gave viewers something unabashedly soulful and stirring, especially compared to the winners of recent vintage, which were largely downbeat, often extremely violent films that hardly spurred any serious rooting interest.”
The kings of sarcasm at Defamer thought the “silly pomp” added to the popular categories and the “shorter shrift” given to the less noteworthy awards may have contributed to the ratings boost.
Or could the recession have paid off for ABC?
“Terrified of the sound of the distant, gnawing, money-eating Langoliers outside, in recent months people have decided to stay at home and cower in front of the television more than ever before,” the blog snarked.
Even commenters at TheWrap were in a frenzy debating the shows merits and drawbacks.
“Hate to tell you,” one wrote, “but the vast majority of us audience members, industry and non-industry viewers, the people whose opinions really matter, thoroughly enjoyed this re-invigorated, highly entertaining show.”