Ratings ride wave

'Titanic' lifts Oscarcast to boffo numbers

The tide that swept “Titanic” to 11 Academy Awards has buoyed ABC to its best Oscarcast ratings in 15 years and largest U.S. TV audience ever.

The Oscar rating, which measures the percentage of U.S. TV homes that tuned in to an average minute, was a 34.9, the best since a 38.0 in 1983, when “Gandhi” won the best picture statue. Monday night’s share, a percentage measured against only the homes in which something was being watched during the Oscarcast, was a 55, also the best since ’83.

ABC exec VP for alternate series and specials Michael Davies acknowledges that “Titanic’s” popularity was a big reason for this year’s swell in Oscar ratings, but he sees other factors at work as well.

“It was a night of big American movies and big American stars,” Davies said. “I don’t believe a single major award went to a movie that grossed much less than $100 million. And the actors who won — Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Robin Williams and Kim Basinger — there are no four actors people could have been rooting more for.”

Monday’s 34.9 rating reps a 27% jump over last year’s 27.4 (second-lowest ever, when “The English Patient” won for best picture). It’s the biggest year-to-year jump for the Academy Awards since the 1970 rating, a 43.4 (with “Midnight Cowboy”), towered 36% above the previous year’s 31.8 (“Oliver”).

This year’s demo results were also titanic, with the highest men, women and adults 18-49 averages for the Oscars in the 11-season history of peoplemeters. With “Titanic” particularly appealing to teens, ABC enjoyed a 71% increase over last year among teens 12-17 and a 68% increase among female teens.

ABC’s Monday coverage earned its highest shares among women — a 61 among women 18-34, a 64 with women 35-49 and a 57 with women 50-and-older. Men 18-34 gave it a 51; men 35-49 gave a 48; and men 50-and-older a 46. The Oscars earned a 51 share among teens, and a 39 among kids 2-11.

The estimated number of viewers who watched at least a portion of the telecast was 87 million, the highest Oscar total ever. Of course, such tallies benefit from ongoing population increases.

Between 1961 and 1976, the Academy Awards dipped as low as this year’s 34.9 only twice: in 1968, with “In the Heat of the Night,” and in 1969, with “Oliver.”

But only twice since then has the Oscar rating gone higher (in 1978 with “Annie Hall” and 1983 with “Gandhi”). The highest-ever Academy Awards tallies came in 1956 (“Marty”), with a 46.7 rating, 82 share.

Even with the Oscars’ huge 24.2/57 among adults 18-49, ABC merely moved back into a tie with Fox for second place season-to-date in that key demographic. With Fox having beaten ABC in the 18-49 demo the last seven weeks in a row, it now appears likely Fox will regain the runner-up spot and hold it till the season closes in late May, which would mark a historic first for Fox.

Of the 38 markets currently metered by Nielsen, Los Angeles and San Diego gave the Academy Awards their highest numbers, 51.5/67 and 47.1/64, respectively. New York came in third with a 45.8/65.

This season’s only primetime telecast to have outscored the Academy Awards nationally has been Jan. 25’s Super Bowl (44.5/67).

As usual, the length of the kudocast, this year totaling three hours and 45 minutes, worked against its final average. The Academy Awards averaged a 37.0 rating from 9:30-11 p.m. ET and then dropped to a 33.4 from 11 p.m.-12:45 a.m.

There was virtually no competition for the Oscars this year, with CBS finishing a distant second for the night at 5.4/8. NBC tied Fox’s boxing with 4.3/6 averages each. In women 18-49, the Academy Awards earned a 59 share from 9-11 p.m., nearly four times the combined CBS-NBC-Fox 15 share.

The night featured lowest-ever ratings for “Suddenly Susan” (5.2/8), “Law & Order” (4.7/7), “Cosby” (5.0/7 in a special 9:30 rerun) and “Walker, Texas Ranger” (3.9/6), plus the two lowest-ever ratings for “Caroline in the City” (3.4/5 and 3.5/5).

The “Barbara Walters Special” (16.1/26) — which aired before the Oscarcast in the East and after in the West — topped last year’s comparable program by 13%, but was apparently the third-lowest-rated Oscar-night Walters special ever, down 11% from the spec’s 1990s average.

Before this year’s surge, Oscar rating hit their recent peak in 1995 (32.5/53, “Forrest Gump”) but eroded by 7% in ’96 (30.3/50, “Braveheart”) and another 10% in ’97 down (27.4/46, “The English Patient,” lowest since 1986’s lowest-ever 27.3/43).

ABC’s Davies is hopeful this year’s big tune-in by teens and younger adults will pay dividends for years to come. “I think we raised the profile of the Oscars in the public consciousness,” he said. “A lot of people saw them for the first time.”

Davies thinks a hefty promo-marketing push by ABC helped. He also lauded the telecast itself, saying, “I don’t think there’s ever been a bigger production on television in terms of the kind of names that were assembled for a single telecast … It was a very, very well-produced event and a very good television program.”

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