NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Looks as if the big Oscars gambit paid off: ABC today said last night's broadcast of the 82nd annual Academy Awards, replete with an expanded 10-nominee slate for Best Picture, notched the event's highest audience since 2005.
ABC said its Oscars broadcast snared an average audience of 41.3 million viewers, the most since 2005's event -- in which "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" won the nod for Best Picture -- attracted 43.5 million, according to Nielsen. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, seeing numbers for the event in recent years dip as low as 32 million in 2008, tried this year to buck the trend by making the event less reliant on a narrow slate of Best Picture nominees by widening the selection process.
ABC said the Oscars audience increased by 5 million over last year's, when an average crowd of 36.3 million tuned in to see "Slumdog Millionaire" win the top honor. The Oscars have long been hampered by the nature of the movies nominated for Best Picture, which in recent years have largely been artier, edgy films that appeal to narrower fan bases. When big blockbuster films get a nomination, the event's TV audience usually increases.
The numbers also serve to underscore the importance of live-event TV for the nation's five major broadcast networks. At a time when more viewers are recording favorite programs and watching them later with a digital-video recorder (and skipping past many of the ads with fast-forwarding), live events do what much of broadcast TV used to do: accumulate a broad audience all watching a program -- and the commercials that support it -- at a single moment in time.
Clearly, advertisers were counting on the Oscars to deliver just that. Apple used the event to debut a new campaign for its coming iPad, slated to launch April 3. And Coca-Cola blanketed the Oscars with ads tying its popular beverages to specific causes consumers could link with, whether they be heart health or educational fundraising.
ABC's ratings performance came despite a nasty fight with Cablevision Systems Corp. that kept the feed of the Walt Disney network's flagship New York station, WABC, off the air for most of the day and for at least the first 15 minutes or so of the Oscars broadcast.
Like many other TV-network owners, Disney has been trying to increase the fees it receives from cable-systems managers in exchange for its highly watched content. WABC was removed from Cablevision early Sunday morning after days of public spats between the two parties over the effects for an increase for retransmission fees of WABC to Cablevision's 3.1 million New York-area viewers.
But the two sides said Sunday evening that they had established a working agreement and put WABC back on the air a few moments after the two Oscars hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, finished their opening routine.