Telecast improved from last year's record low

ABC, the Academy and first-time Oscar producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon can take a deep breath: The words “record” and “low” will not be used to describe this year’s ratings.

The Academy Awards may still be largely out of synch with the tastes of American filmgoers, but a substantial crowd — especially those in the country’s biggest markets — tuned in Sunday to see the coronation of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

One year after the Academy Awards telecast tumbled to its smallest audience on record (32 million), viewership surged by 13% to 36.3 million, according to preliminary Nielsen estimates. Audience peaked during the 10 p.m. ET half-hour, which included Heath Ledger’s posthumous victory.

This year’s Oscar audience also tops the 2003 show (33.0 million) but is nonetheless the third-smallest for the ceremony in the past 40 years. It stands as the most-watched entertainment telecast since the 2007 Academy Awards (40.17 million), outdrawing all episodes of Fox’s “American Idol” each of the previous two seasons.

The amount of growth is a bit surprising given that this season’s slate of winners was very predictable, and fewer Americans had seen the current best picture nominees than the year before. Instead, it’s probably more a reflection of the depressed state of the television biz a year ago.

Last year’s Oscarcast was hampered in part by the 100-daywriters strike, which led to low circulation at ABC in the weeks leading up the kudocast. Also, other awards shows were canceled or scaled back significantly, contributing to a lack of kudos spirit.

This year, though, buoyed by original episodes of scripted hits like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives,” ABC’s primetime ratings are up by double-digit percentages vs. the first two months a year ago.

And amid increased viewing levels across primetime, the Oscars have become the third major television event this month to post meaningful Nielsen gains. NBC’s coverage of the Super Bowl drew a record crowd (98.73 million), and the Grammy Awards on CBS improved by 11% (19.05m vs. 17.17m).

The three highest metered-market scores Sunday came from the top three markets — 34.1/49 in New York, 31.2/46 in Chicago and a 28.1/44 in Los Angeles — and these cities accounted for 20% of all viewing nationally.

In total viewership, the Oscars telecast this season lags only the Super Bowl and football’s AFC Championship on CBS (40.65 million). The most-watched seg of “American Idol,” the season premiere, drew 30.42 million, while the most popular scripted telecast (the season preem of CBS’ “CSI”) averaged 23.48 million.

In adults 18-49, this year’s Oscars averaged a 12.1 rating, a 13% improvement over last year’s 10.7 rating and the highest for any entertainment telecast since an episode of “American Idol” in February 2008.

Biggest demo gainer this year, surprisingly, came among men 18-34, with this year’s show jumping by 22% (8.9 vs. 7.3).

Also for ABC on Sunday, the annual “Barbara Walters Oscar Special” (7-8 p.m. ET, after the ceremony in the West) averaged a 3.2 rating in 18-49 and 11.6 million viewers overall, and the 8 p.m. ET “Oscar’s Red Carpet 2009″ earned a 7.2 demo rating and 24.3 million viewers, up by 13% in 18-49 vs. last year.

And in latenight, a special Sunday episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (12:38-1:29 a.m. ET) averaged 4.3 million viewers, up 16% vs. its post-Oscar telecast a year ago (3.7 million). It was also up by more than 35% in both adults 18-49 and 18-34.

In fact, its 18-34 audience (1.2 million) is the largest to date for an episode of the show (excluding its two post-Super Bowl segs).

Fox best counterprogrammed the Oscars, as its coverage of a NASCAR race averaged a 3.5 rating in 18-49 and about 10 million viewers overall on the net’s affiliates from 7 to 10:15 p.m. ET. NBC was runner-up in the 10 o’clock hour with the second half of its spec “100 Most Outrageous Home Videos of All Time” (prelim 1.9/5 in 18-49, 6.0 million).

In cable, E! drew 3.2 million viewers for its Oscar red carpet special (6-8 p.m. ET), up from last year’s 2.8 million.

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