Telecast nabs smallest audience on record

In what could hardly be dubbed a surprise, Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast on ABC took a tumble in the ratings, logging the show’s smallest audience on record.

A batch of films with mostly grim themes, combined with an awards season that lacked any real momentum thanks to the writers strike, contributed to this year’s alarming 20% falloff.

Preliminary Nielsen estimates show that an average of 32 million viewers were watching at any given minute during Sunday’s three-hour-plus telecast hosted by Jon Stewart, with viewership peaking around 10 p.m.

While still a huge audience relative to that of most primetime fare, it’s less than one-third the crowd generated by the Super Bowl on Fox earlier this month (97.5 million). It’s also a smaller aud, by comparison, than those drawn to several other National Football League playoff games as well as the premiere episode this season of Fox’s “American Idol.”

Don’t feel too badly for ABC, though, as the net sold most of its ad inventory prior to the start of the writers strike — and made a nice profit by selling its 30-second spots for a whopping $1.8 million each. This year’s ratings perf could hurt next year’s ad sales, however.

Sunday’s audience was down sharply from last year’s 40.17 million and also below the kudocast’s previous low-water mark of 33.04 million in 2003 (a show held just days after the country went to war in Iraq).

This year’s Oscars had its own hurdles to overcome, most notably the four-month writers strike, which cut into preparation time for producers and writers.

ABC didn’t have a lot of momentum heading into Sunday, either, lacking original episodes of its femme magnets “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives” to promote the kudocast. Also likely a factor was the selection of host, as there wasn’t the curiosity factor that accompanied Stewart’s first Oscar gig two years ago.

And then there were the nominees themselves, mostly little-seen pics and numerous foreign-born thesps, many of whom took home Oscars on Sunday.

The show averaged a 10.7 rating in adults 18-49, down 24% from last year (14.1) and 14% below the previous low of 2003 (12.5).

The top five highest-rated markets were New York (30.6 household rating/44 share), Chicago (29.1/43), San Francisco (27.2/47), West Palm Beach, Fla. (26.1/39), and Los Angeles (25.6/41). A year ago, New York generated a 35.3 rating and Los Angeles a 32.0.

There wasn’t much competition on the other broadcast nets Sunday night, although it wouldn’t be surprising to see ABC’s rivals more aggressively counterprogram the Oscars in future years if its ratings continue to slide.

Fox ran second with a NASCAR race and a repeat of “The Simpsons,” while CBS was down a bit week to week with “Big Brother” (prelim 2.2/5 in 18-49, 5.7 million) and “Dexter” (prelim 2.0/5, 6.5 million). NBC struggled to a 3 share in 18-49 and fewer than 5 million viewers overall with four repeats of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

National ratings for all Sunday shows, including ABC’s other Oscar-related programming, will be issued by Nielsen today. In prelims, the “Oscars Red Carpet 2008” spec in the 8 o’clock half-hour leading into the kudocast averaged a 6.3 rating in 18-49 and 21.5 million viewers overall.

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