Kudocast steers clear of 'Titanic' numbers

Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast has settled for OK Nielsens, nowhere near last year’s ”Titanic”-boosted figures, but still the kudocast’s second-best among adults 18-49 in the last four years.

Preliminary results issued by Nielsen Monday (and possibly to be adjusted today) give this year’s Oscars a 28.6 rating, 46 share in households and an 18.8 rating in adults 18-49.

The household rating is a bit of a disappointment, down 18% vs. last year’s ”Titanic” surge, and Oscar’s second-lowest tally in eight years.

That drop comes despite this year’s shift to Sunday, which was expected to bring at least minor viewership increases. Sundays are considered advantageous since their average viewership levels are slightly higher than Mondays, and there are fewer work-related distractions for viewers in those time zones where the Oscarcast begins well before primetime.

Still, that 28.6 homes rating is up 4% over the 1997 result, when the slate of nominees, led by ”The English Patient,” was somewhat more comparable to this year’s lineup than the 1998 slate.

In adults 18-49, this year’s 18.8 is down a steep 22% vs. last year’s ”Titanic”-inflated 24.2, but is still 15% ahead of the 16.4 logged in 1997 and 1% better than the 18.6 of 1996 (when ”Braveheart” won the best picture statue).

Demo progress

Those solid 18-49 results suggest the Academy and ABC have made some progress in turning the Oscars into a younger-skewing telecast, which would bode well for both the ceremony’s future audience and its current-day ad revenues.

“This is exactly where our ratings estimates were,” said Michael Davies, ABC’s executive VP of alternative series and specials. “We looked at last year’s show as a huge spike. ‘Titanic’ brought in people who hadn’t been to the movies in 20 years. It was one of those extremely populist movies.”

Sunday’s ratings undoubtedly would have been higher had the Academy contained the telecast to less than its record length of four hours and two minutes, but, surprisingly, the show’s final segments were not dramatically lower-rated than its earlier hours.

The first three hours of this year’s coverage (8:30-11:30 p.m. Eastern time, 5:30-8:30 Pacific time) averaged a 29.1 rating, while the remainder of the telecast managed a 26.9 (not including the final segment, nine minutes in length this year, which ran unsponsored, as usual).

The top-rated half-hour came from 10-10:30 (a 31.4) and the lowest-rated segment was the last measured period from midnight to 12:23 a.m. (25.5). But that segment finished barely behind the opening 8:30-9 p.m. half-hour (25.6).

Plodding pace

What the ratings can’t indicate is how much stronger each half-hour might have been had the ceremony been tighter and faster-paced.

The Academy Awards are this season’s third-highest-rated primetime telecast, behind Fox’s Jan. 31 Super Bowl (40.2/61) and ABC’s March 3 Monica Lewinsky interview (33.4/48). Fox’s 37-minute primetime overrun of the Jan. 17 Atlanta-Minnesota NFC Championship gridcast also topped the Oscars, with a 29.6/49.

ABC estimates about 78 million viewers watched at least part of Sunday’s Oscars coverage, down 10% from last year’s ”Titanic”-boosted 87 million, but topping the estimated 74 million that tuned in to the two-hour Monica Lewinsky interview earlier in the month.

ABC is encouraged that the Academy Awards’ national rating dropped just 11% from the telecast’s average in Nielsen metered markets. In past years, the drop generally has been about 15%, suggesting this year’s coverage had stronger-than-usual appeal in the U.S. heartland.

The Oscars did best in L.A. (44.0/64, down 15% from last year) and San Diego (41.4/60, down 12%). New York gave the ceremony a 37.4/55 (down 18%).

Nielsen race static

Despite the big Oscar numbers, ABC will apparently continue to trail Fox in the season-to-date 18-49 race for second place by a 0.2-rating-point margin when Nielsen updates those season averages Tuesday. It’s now looking unlikely ABC can close the gap on Fox in the season’s remaining 9-1/2 weeks, now that it’s aired what will likely be its two top-rated events of the season, the Oscars and the Lewinsky interview.

Based on projected March 15-21 results, ABC’s season-to-date 18-49 average is expected to inch up from a 4.9 to a 5.0, while Fox’s should dip from a 5.3 to a 5.2.

NBC weathered Oscar week better than Fox and should emerge with a season-to-date 5.4 average, giving the Peacock a 0.2-rating-point edge over Fox for the season in the key demo. That would equal NBC’s most comfortable lead since Fox aired the Super Bowl in January.

NBC may also move a tenth closer to the season’s households leader, CBS, though that would reflect more the vagaries of statistical rounding than significant progress by the Peacock. Depending on how the weeklong numbers round, CBS will either remain at a 9.2 household rating for the season or slip to a 9.1, while NBC remains at a 9.0.

ABC will easily take the March 15-21 week in any case, winning by roughly a 1.6-rating-point margin in homes and a 0.9-rating-point edge in adults 18-49. NBC is expected to finish second for the week by both measures.

Sunday’s most successful Oscar counterprogramming was NBC’s rerun of ”Under Siege 2” (7.7/12 in homes, 5.0/11 in adults 18-49).

‘X’ vexed

Fox’s Sunday lineup got shut out on Oscar night, as ”The X-Files” (a prelim 4.4/7 in homes, 3.6/8 in adults 18-49) went home with its lowest regular-slot regular-season homes rating since New Year’s Eve 1993.

CBS’ ”Touched by an Angel” (a prelim 8.5/13 in homes, 3.3/8 in adults 18-49) also slipped to its lowest regular-slot, regular-season score, excluding Super Bowl Sundays, since Dec. 14, 1994.

If last year’s ”Titanic”-influenced Oscar numbers prove to be somewhat of a fluke, it would suggest the venerable awards show is in a slump, having otherwise suffered its two lowest household ratings since 1991 in the past three years.

From 1992 through 1998, the Academy Awards averaged a 31.0/51 in households. That was a substantial and encouraging improvement over the 28.3/47 the kudocast averaged over the 1985-1991 period, which represents the worst slump in Oscar history.

This year’s 28.6/46 is uncomfortably similar to that 28.3/47. Given the far greater competition these days from cable, netlet and Internet distractions, however, any telecast that can compete with its results from 10 or 15 years ago is beating the odds.

The lowest-rated Oscarcast ever came in 1986 (27.3/43, with ”Out of Africa” winning best picture), followed by 1997’s (27.4/46, ”The English Patient”). This year’s prelim 28.6 rating will, if not adjusted by Nielsen, rank as the Academy Awards’ seventh-lowest ever.

The top-rated Oscarcast came in 1956 (46.7/82, ”Marty”).

This year’s traditional Oscar-night Barbara Walters special dominated its hour, but was the lowest-rated such spec ever, earning a prelim 12.7/22 in households from 7-8 p.m. Eastern time. That reps a drop of 21% vs. last year’s Monday 8-9 p.m. telecast. ABC’s 8-8:30 ”Oscar Preview Show” scored a preliminary 18.1/29 in homes.

The Oscar.com Web site also tallied 3.8 million impressions that night from 7 p.m.-12:23 a.m.

(Jenny Hontz in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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