The film biz recently celebrated a record-setting year at the domestic box office, yet it hardly came as a surprise that Sunday’s Oscars on ABC generated the show’s least-watched least-watched ceremony in eight years — and its smallest audience in some broad demos in more than a decade.
While some thought that the controversy over a dearth of diversity in the major acting nominations may have actually helped bring some curious viewers to see how host Chris Rock addressed the elephant in the room, these lookie-loos were likely canceled out by viewers who opted to skip the show in protest or solidarity.
Among the factors contributing to this year’s lower overall numbers was the audience makeup of best picture nominees like “The Revenant,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “The Martian.” All three easily cleared $100 million in ticket sales — and the average domestic gross among the contenders was $97.8 million, the highest in three years — but they were hardly blockbusters, and many of these movies appealed to older crowds.
Studios don’t provide demographic data for a film’s entire theatrical run, but a snapshot of opening-weekend crowds can be revealing. “The Revenant,” for example, drew an initial crowd that was 73% over the age of 25, “The Martian’s” initial audience was 72% over the age of 25, “Mad Max” had 56% of ticket buyers over the age of 35, and other nominees such as “Bridge of Spies” drew an audience that was 89% over the age of 25. “Spotlight,” the eventual winner, also played best with older audiences.
Other contenders such as “Room,” which won a best actress Oscar for Brie Larson, failed to break out domestically, earning less than $15 million in its theatrical run.
And of course, none of the year’s three biggest box office blockbusters made much noise on Sunday. “Star Wars Ep. VII: The Force Awakens” picked up awards in technical categories, but “Jurassic World” and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” were clearly more popcorn than prestige. Combined, the movies grossed nearly $2 billion in 2015 — accounting for about 18% of all ticket sales.
Another factor is that awards shows in general have had a hard time holding on to young viewers in recent years. Ratings for kudocasts tend to go up and down in unison, and after an across-the-board ratings spurt in 2012 and 2013, every major awards show has suffered at least two straight years of demo declines.
For its part, this year’s Oscars ratings dipped 4% from last year in adults 18-49, and was down 18% from 2014; it was, however, up 1% vs. last year in adults 18-34 and spiked 20% in men 18-34. Two weeks earlier, the Grammys on CBS suffered a 7% decline in adults 18-49 and a steep 22% tumble from just two years ago. And in January, the Golden Globes on NBC held up reasonably well, but was down 3% from last year and 15% lower than 2014.
It’s unlikely that a decline in black viewership significantly affected the overall ratings picture, though Rev. Al Sharpton, who led a boycott of about 70 demonstrators in Los Angeles during the Oscars telecast, certainly believed it made a difference.
“The early reports of a decline in the Oscar viewership is heartening to those of us that campaigned around asking citizens to tune out,” said Sharpton in a statement Monday morning following a 6% decline in overnight ratings. “This is a significant decline and should send a message to the Academy and to movie studio heads. Though clearly we don’t take full credit for the decline, certainly one would have to assume we were effective and part of the decline. And to those that mocked the idea of a tune out, it seems the joke was on them.”
Blacks typically make up a small percentage of the overall Oscar viewing pie, with the high tune-in the last 20 years coming when Rock hosted for the first time in 2005 (5.27 million viewers) — a year that also featured prominent acting noms for African-American actors including Jamie Foxx and Don Cheadle. Last year, less than 10% of the overall Oscar viewership (3.29 million of 37.26 million) was black, according to Nielsen. (This year’s numbers will be released Tuesday.)
Another issue that plagued the show was that given the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Rock didn’t do any promotion to help drive tune-in.
“We were hampered in how we could promote the show,” says a network source. “We were behind the eight-ball, and America wasn’t interested in it; they may have tuned in for the monologue, but quickly tuned out. We didn’t make them care.”
While ABC’s marketing team threw everything in its arsenal to drum up interest in the Oscars, it’s likely that on-air spots weren’t as effective as in years past. The network has fallen to fourth place among young adults this season — it went through a particularly dark stretch for the first month of the year — and lower ratings for flagship shows like “Modern Family,” “Scandal” and “Shark Tank” in the days leading up to Sunday didn’t pack as much promotional punch.
Despite the declines, it’s worth remembering that the Oscars have proven resilient over the years, and remain far and away the top-rated awards show. (The Academy Awards stands as the top-rated entertainment telecast on teelvision of the past year, out-rating this month’s Grammys by 35% in adults 18-49, and besting last month’s Golden Globes by 89%.)
After slumping to 33 million viewers in 2003, ratings spiked to 43.5 million in 2004 — thanks in large part to the emergence of the popular “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” And one year after hitting a record low of 32 million in 2008, the Oscars picked up about 4 million the following year.
But after suffering a public relations hit and falling to some of its lowest ratings in years, it will take more populist movies, a more diverse group of nominees and perhaps a stronger ABC to help turn the ship around.
Debra Birnbaum and Brent Lang contributed to this report.