Distracted, disinterested aud tunes out kudocast

Against a backdrop of war, Sunday’s telecast of the Academy Awards on ABC attracted the smallest audience on record for the kudocast.

Apparently viewers were either too distracted by events in the Middle East or weren’t as interested in what promised to be a more subdued ceremony, but preliminary Nielsen nationals show the Oscars averaging 33.1 million viewers — a 21% dropoff year-to-year.

Only twice before had the awards show even sunk below 40 million, with the all-time low coming in 1987, when “Platoon” picked up the best pic statuette before an average of 37.2 million viewers.

Ratings tend to drift off the longer a kudocast drags on, so at 3½ hours, the relative brevity of this year’s event likely kept the Nielsen numbers from falling even further.

If it’s any consolation to Oscar, CBS was also struggling to draw an audience for its annual coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — with early-round viewership over the weekend off more than 20%.

This year’s Oscarcast, of course, aired under the dark cloud of war in Iraq. The red carpet was rolled up, ABC canceled its annual Barbara Walters Oscar-night gabfest, and there was some doubt up to Sunday evening whether the show would go on.

Hoping for $78 mil

ABC was hoping for an advertising haul of roughly $78 million for the night by charging upward of $1.3 million for a 30-second spot — 10% more than last year.

“People were tuning in, but they weren’t sticking with the broadcast as long,” said ABC veep of research Larry Hyams. “They were turning over to get war updates in the body of the telecast.”

He pointed out that the difference between the show’s preliminary 20.4 household rating and its 38.3 tune-in rating (the number of households that watched at least six consecutive minutes of the telecast) was larger than usual. In fact, Hyams said, the 188% differential is significantly more than the 170% the ceremony’s averaged in recent years and the greatest in ABC’s records.

Still, there was a good chunk of the normal audience that was not watching any of Sunday’s show, which was hosted by Steve Martin and saw musical “Chicago” honored as best picture.

Thirst for war news

Ratings were not available for Sunday’s cable news networks, but if previous days of the war coverage were any indication, Fox News and CNN were garnering nearly four times their usual primetime audience.

The Academy Awards is usually the second most-watched telecast of the season (behind the Super Bowl); this year’s Oscarcast now ranks fifth in terms of overall audience — behind the Super Bowl on ABC (88.64 million), football’s AFC Championship on CBS (41.46m), the finale of “Joe Millionaire” on Fox (40.03m) and the season premiere of “Friends” on NBC (34.01m).

And in adults 18-49, this year’s preliminary 12.5 rating is off 22% from last year’s 16.1 and ranks 14th among all primetime programs this season.

The other networks put up little resistance on the night, with ABC still easily topping the combined CBS-NBC-Fox competish.

As for the NCAA basketball tourney, the first two rounds on CBS (excluding the Thursday and Friday games the net farmed off to ESPN) averaged a 5 rating/9 share in the metered-market overnights, a 24% decline from last year’s 6.6/13.

Action is scheduled to resume Thursday evening on CBS.

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