Guest column

The hand-wringing continues days after what easily ranked as the least-watched Academy Awards telecast on record. But this ratings meltdown was largely out of the hands of Gil Cates, Steve Martin & Co.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Nielsen numbers for an entertainment program is that the quality of the show somehow drives the ratings. But unlike a movie or a TV series, which has time to develop good buzz and add viewers throughout its run, a one-time event such as the Oscars requires high intent-to-view levels on a particular night.

People are either going to tune in or they’re not, and this year many who normally would watch the kudocast opted not to — from the outset.

I’m sure there are those who can come up with ways to make the Oscar telecast better (hey, at least it was shorter this year), but there was a three-headed monster that made life difficult for Sunday’s kudocast well before 8:30 p.m. ET on Sunday: the war in Iraq, the relative obscurity of the movies nominated and low circulation for a hobbled ABC that carried it. (In addition, other awards shows have been proliferating and improving in quality and in ratings.)

ABC suggested that, due to the war, there was more of a “churn” in the audience, meaning that while the average audience watching at any given minute of the telecast was down 21% year-to-year (33.1 million vs. 41.8 million), there was still a large number of people who watched some of the telecast (62 million vs. 73 million, down a slightly more respectable 15% from last year).

Still, that means 11 million Americans who had watched “A Beautiful Mind” dominate last March didn’t see “Chicago” claim any of its six statuettes on Sunday.

Aside from the fact that 13 million viewers were watching cable news coverage of the war in Iraq during primetime Sunday, it didn’t help the telecast that the red carpet was rolled up or that Barbara Walters’ annual pre-game chatfest wasn’t a part of the evening’s festivities for the first time in more than 20 years.

Also, virtually all of the talk in the days prior to Sunday centered on which stars were bailing on the awards show and whether it would even take place.

Toss into the mix a politically charged war and a segment of the potential aud that might not have wanted to hear what the likes of Barbra Streisand, Susan Sarandon or Michael Moore might utter at the podium.

The movies nominated for the big awards also play a role in who tunes in on Oscar night, as the ratings surge in 1998 — when millions of “Titanic” fanatics just had to witness the movie’s coronation — can attest.

A suburbanite friend of mine who goes to the movies every Monday of the year lamented over the weekend that she had seen only one of the big movies nominated for an Academy Award.

Aside from the fact that this was seemingly statistically impossible, it speaks to how unique the moviegoing experience is in the big city relative to the suburbs or the Heartland. (By the way, she still watched the Oscars.)

“Chicago,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Hours” and “The Pianist,” for example, may be deemed great movies by the Academy, but there’s a big portion of the moviegoing public who wouldn’t go anywhere near, say, a musical, a three-hour period piece, a depressing “chick flick” or a Holocaust tale.

And then there’s ABC. Not to pick on the downtrodden net, but the seven-day period prior to Oscar week was the least-watched of the season for the Alphabet web (a distant fourth-place finish among the nets), so it wasn’t exactly able to promote the Oscars in a typical manner.

This is often a key factor in awards shows, as CBS remembers in February 2002 when its Grammy Awards telecast flirted with record-low numbers when it aired just three days after NBC had dominated the airwaves for 17 nights with the Winter Olympics.

Circulation also was a factor on shows like “Entertainment Tonight” and “Good Morning, America,” which were either preempted for war coverage or featured significantly reduced coverage of the Oscars.

ABC, of course, put the best face on the Oscar ratings dropoff, noting the show’s average audience of 33.1 million still easily topped the most recent Grammys (24.8 million), Golden Globes (20.1 million) and Emmys (20 million).

But this is an event that has consistently rated among the two or three highest-rated programs of the year, and that this season likely will settle for sixth or seventh place — well behind, among others, the finale of Fox’s “Joe Millionaire.”

Still, there’s nearly every reason to think the forces that conspired to make last week’s Academy Awards the lowest-rated on record will dissipate by next year, and that the Oscarcast will go back above the 40 million-viewer mark.

But guys, about that move to February…

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