Bottom Drops Out for the Oscars, as Ratings Fall 24%

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Frances McDormand, winner in the best actress category, at the Oscars on Sunday.
Frances McDormand, winner in the best actress category, at the Oscars on Sunday. Credit: ABC/Craig Sjodin

A dearth of eligible blockbusters and the ongoing secular shift in media consumption patterns conspired to put the squeeze on TV's most formidable awards show, as ratings for ABC's Sunday night Oscars broadcast appear to have fallen to an all-time low.

According to preliminary Nielsen data, the primetime portion of the 90th Annual Academy Awards averaged 24.4 million viewers and a 6.4 rating in ABC's most inclusive demo, which translates to around 8.2 million adults 18 to 49 years old.

And while those early numbers suggest that the 2018 Oscarscast will take its rightful place among the year's top 20 most-watched broadcasts, Sunday night's show is all but certain to shake out as the lowest-rated Academy Awards ceremony in TV history.

Compared to last year's show, which averaged 31.7 million preliminary viewers (in the final live-same-day reckoning, the overall deliveries were adjusted up to 32.9 million viewers), the audience for Sunday night's Oscars fell 24 percent. Ratings for cinephiles in the 18-to-49 demo dropped proportionately; per Nielsen, the early 6.4 rating represents a 26 percent drop compared to last year's 8.7.

Another early measure, Nielsen's overnight ratings, also took a tumble, as the nearly four-hour broadcast averaged an 18.9 rating in Nielsen's 56 metered markets, which account for nearly 70 percent of the country's TV homes. ABC's overnights were down 16 percent compared to the year-ago 22.4 household rating, which adjusted three points south to an 18.4 when the final national numbers were tallied.

Final live-same-day ratings are expected to be released later Monday afternoon. Those deliveries will include the final 50 minutes of the broadcast that aired outside of primetime, a stretch that included three of the night's biggest awards moments.

(UPDATE: ABC didn't see a significant uptick in the national ratings, as the official (and final) Nielsen tally for the Oscars inched up to 26.5 million viewers. While that still qualifies as a robust turnout in an era of accelerated media fragmentation, it wasn't enough to avoid setting an unenviable benchmark. In failing to match the 32 million diehards who tuned in for the 2008 Oscars ceremony, Sunday night's broadcast now ranks as the least-watched of the 66 televised Academy Awards.)

While the atomization of the traditional TV platform didn't do ABC any favors last night—in a move that sent tens of thousands of cord-cutters scrambling for a link to a pirate feed, the network's live stream of the Oscars was available only to verified pay-TV subscribers—the enthusiasm for this year's show may have been dampened by a pool of nominees that was loaded with smallish releases and fewer household names than in years past. For example, Gary Oldman's portrayal of Winston Churchill in "Darkest Hour" may have earned him the Best Actor statuette, but the film itself was only the 51st highest-grossing release of 2017. Likewise, Frances McDormand collected her second Oscar for her work in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," which closed out the year trailing the Churchill biopic by some $3.4 million in ticket sales.

In the Best Picture race, the biggest hits were the World War II flick "Dunkirk," which last year grossed around $188 million in U.S.ticket sales, good for 14th place on the box office charts, and Jordan Peele's horror film "Get Out," which tucked in just below "Dunkirk" with $176 million in domestic sales. The remainder of the field was crowded with art house fare ("Lady Bird," "Phantom Thread") and genre mashup curiosities like eventual winner "The Shape of Water," which in 2017 was only the 48th-biggest theatrical draw.

Back in 2009, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would expand the field of Best Picture nominees from five to as many as 10 titles, many advertisers hoped the more inclusive format would serve as an opportunity for Oscars voters to draft the occasional popcorn movie. The thinking was, why not toss in a "Star Wars" or Marvel Comics flick in with that black-and-white silent film from France or the movie where Brie Larson and her son remain captive in a shed for seven years? Because while many of the smaller, more personal films deserve all the praise that gets heaped upon them every year, their box office performance often appears to be inexorably entwined with the Oscars' cratering TV ratings.

Precedent would seem to support the assertion that bigger pictures can lead to a bigger TV turnout. Case in point: At the time the 70th Academy Awards aired, James Cameron's "Titanic" had already earned $338.7 million in domestic box office, making it the biggest money-maker in Oscars history. Not surprisingly, the movie's popularity translated to staggering TV deliveries; the 55.3 million viewers who tuned in to ABC on March 23, 1998, set a record that has yet to be broken.

Among the most visible advertisers in and around ABC's broadcast were Cadillac, Samsung, Walmart, Verizon, Google, T-Mobile and Twitter. In its very first Oscars buy, the latter brand looked to signal its support of women's empowerment and diverse representation with a 60-second in-house spot. Unfortunately for Twitter's marketing team, several Academy Awards viewers who viewed the ad immediately took to the platform to decry Twitter's seeming inability (or disinclination) to do anything to curtail the festering misogyny and harassment that have made a cesspool of much of the social media space.

Less controversial, but still very much on message, were Walmart's trio of spots that celebrated the creative process (all three of which were directed by women) and Google Nest's prom-themed ad, in which an enlightened father uses the connected-home app as a means to engage in a last-minute man-to-man chat with his teenage son.

In the final analysis, ABC itself was the brand that really stood out on Sunday night. According to data, the network aired more than a dozen promos for upcoming shows such as its "American Idol" and "Roseanne" reboots, as well as the ShondaLand dramas "Station 19" and "For the People." "Idol" returns Sunday, March 11, a little more than two weeks before "Roseanne" is set to return.

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