Oscars Ratings Decline Not Due to One Single Factor

Chris Rock Oscars
A.M.P.A.S/REX/Shutterstock

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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  1. Polybius says:

    For me its politics. I won’t be preached at by the religious right or the fascist left. Entertainment is supposed to be fun but these days everything is the constant hyperbolic buzzkill of liberal moral zealots. God it makes me wish for the days of the loony religious conservatives because somehow they were less detrimental to the fabric of society.

  2. John says:

    At some point you have to wonder when the Academy is going to equate movies the public loves with the awards. Star Trek, Age of Ultron, Mission Impossible, etc. provide the industry with its financing and they get no acknowledgement, even in the form of JUST a nomination. And the actors in these films are who people want to see. Yes, DiCaprio is a stud in this regard, but he cannot carry the show. The public will stop watching if this trend continues. And who really wants to be lectured by Chris Rock? It’s as if the whole industry is embarrassed by what it does best.

  3. Bill says:

    I wonder if there were more, not less, minorities watching since most of the pre-Oscar publicity was about them, but I guess we will find out later today or tomorrow. Sharpton, as well as Rock, needs to learn that there are other minorities beyond black people.

  4. John Bernard says:

    I watched but this will be the last time. Too much politics.

  5. Nevertweeted says:

    I’d always do the exact opposite of what Sharpton asks. I find him to be a race huckster who used his supporters to pay his millions in back taxes. Way to demonstrate entitlement and a complete lack of responsibility for his choices. So, I would react to him the same as the Duggars. Hypocrites and unwillingness to step up and say ‘I screwed up ‘

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I would like for the Oscars to be about movies. I tried to watch the telecast, but ended up muting it and then turning it off completely. Awards were lost among the social commentary and political posturing. Let’s see, we got diversity in the industry, black lives matter, climate change, sexual abuse, police brutality, Republican/Trump bashing (and even an appearance by the US VP), and I’m sure some I missed when the tv was muted. Celebrities and film industry professionals are entitled to their views just like everyone else (and I’m not saying racism, sexual abuse and the other issues are not important), but I wish they wouldn’t use the Oscar telecast as an international platform to push their views.

  7. Alex Garcia says:

    Interestingly enough, the article does not mention the fact that many likely tuned out simply because they prefer not to waste their Sunday evening being lectured to and race-baited by the Hollywood elite, Sharpton, et al.

  8. Cakesniffer says:

    I’m amazed to read this and not hear any mention of a growing demographic that is going to watch the Oscars later, online. If you base your conclusions purely on who was watching live last night, you have no idea if the trend for the young adults watching the Oscars is increasing or decreasing. I have to hope the executives at ABS are smarter than this.

  9. Renee says:

    Ratings for the Oscars has been in decline for a long time, mainly due to the length of the show (3+ hours) and the internet. Nowadays, people can simply go to their computers, phones, etc and view the acceptance speeches or special moments without waiting 30 minutes to four hours for that 3 minute speech or moment. The reporter does stress that the nominated films have an effect when bigger blockbusters are not even in the category, but I feel this would not make a difference. The only times I watched the Oscars in full length were from 2006 to 2009, since then I have stayed close at hand to just the speeches or special moments through the internet due to the length of the show itself. For that reason I chose not to watch the Oscars as I have done since 2009. However, I am glad the message of the lack of diversity was addressed in Chris Rock’s speech and was at times lightly poked at by everyone involved in his show. I am glad that DiCaprio finally won his much deserved Oscar, that the Lady Gaga’s song performance featured survivors of rape standing beside her, and that we got some funny moments including Chris Rock trying to get everyone to buy Girl Scout cookies for his daughter’s troops. In addition, I was happy to hear that those boycotting the Oscars used that night to host an online fundraiser for the tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan, turning the lack of Hollywood diversity into a positive event for an important cause that is happening in our own country.

  10. jonnyrp says:

    I’m well over 25 and have yet to see The revenant. But i’m still watching genre films featuring actors that i thought were awesome in my teenages instead of rushing to theaters to see pale imitations. So in one word, i turned to indie.

    I basically watch things and actors i love and don’t care if the ceremonies and awards show won’t credit them even if i would like to, so i’m all for a more diverse cast during these shows. Ok, Chris Rock did a good job bringing the debate about the diversity issues at the Oscar, yet he only depicted the situation according to Black people. Again, no other minorities that are rarely seen were even mentioned or given any kind of credit.

    I buy whatever films i want to and credit whatever star i love. And until the mainstream, big budget films and the industry start giving them the recognition and prizes they deserve instead of favouring people based on their ethnic group, religion or genre movie decisions what should i &/or why should we care about a show where we can’t recognize our own tastes and groups of movie watchers anymore? Some stars that would deserve more attention are there since the ninethies, sometimes since the eighties and are in their fourthies. While the youngest stars all get one shot at the spotlight and big prize and who knows where they’ll be next month? Maybe they’ll have vanished in no time. Less time than they actually took to rise to stardom.

    Why should we even give a shit when more than 75% of the greats are left out? I don’t anymore.

  11. lulu says:

    Seeing rich people (and this time mostly white) autocongratulate themselves for something like two hours is NOT INTERESTING
    ! People with REAL problems have better things to do, it is as simple as that.

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