Blockbusters beget ratings

Auds tune in en masse when a box office behemoth is in contention

“Million Dollar” who? “Finding” whatsit?

Critics may be kvelling over such masterworks, but, judging by box office, this year’s Oscar race will feature the most obscure slate of best picture nominees in two decades. Conventional wisdom says the noms’ popularity affects viewership. Should ABC be worried?

Statistics appear to back up the assumption that big nominees — or one extremely big nominee — can bring big ratings. Looking at films released from 1982, the year with both the top-grossing best pic nom and the highest average among all five noms, if you account for inflation, was 1983.

That year, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” had earned $659 million (in 2004 dollars) by Oscar time, boosting the average to $229 million. Taking second place in both categories is 1998, when “Titanic” had $573 million (in 2004 dollars) and the average was $194 million. Not surprisingly, those were the two most-watched telecasts — 53.3 million viewers in 1983 and 55.2 million in 1998 — in the past 22 years.

An unscientific examination of the figures over this 22-year period does seem to show a correlation between total viewers and average gross of the best pic noms (top gross seems correlated as well). The major outlier is the 2003 ceremony (“Chicago”), which — as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq days earlier — got only 33 million viewers, the smallest audience in the 22-year period, despite relatively high grosses.

So how do this year’s noms measure up to those of the past? Not very well.

Through the weekend ending Jan. 30, the average gross of the five best pic noms was $47.8 million. If the Oscars had been held that day, that figure, in real terms, would be the lowest average in the 22-year-period, though this year’s figure will surely pass the 1985 average of $50 million (in 2004 dollars).

So will this year’s pics spell a ratings disaster? Not necessarily.

Box-office take is an imperfect measure of a film’s popularity. For example, it does not account for video and DVD rentals for the noms that are in stores by Oscar time, such as “Seabiscuit” and “Gladiator.” (“Ray” was rushed for a Feb. 1 video/DVD release.)

In addition, 2005 is only the second year that the Oscars have taken place so early.

“It gives a little less time for the audience to become enthusiasts for certain films,” notes Oscars producer Gil Cates.

Jeri Wang, ABC’s senior VP of primetime sales, says while grosses among best pic noms are down, “The word of mouth on a couple of the titles will still trigger interest.”

Also, there’s more to the Oscars than best picture. First-time host Chris Rock is known for his edgy humor, and some might tune in to see how far he’ll push the envelope. Plus, Rock might help draw more eyeballs from his main fan base of young males, which is historically a relatively weak demo for the spec known as “the Super Bowl for women.”

In 1995, David Letterman — a similarly bold choice who also appeals to young males — brought in 48.3 million viewers, the third-most over the period discussed, behind the “Titanic” and “E.T.” years. But Letterman’s year featured “Forrest Gump,” whose $393 million in 2004 dollars made it the No. 3 best pic nom over the period.

Then there are the acting noms. Flashy double-nominee Jamie Foxx is the favorite to win lead actor and could attract young males. Both Rock and Foxx could also bring in African-Americans, another weak Oscar demo.

In addition, Wang notes that ABC’s overall primetime rating among 18-to-49-year-olds this season to date is up 11% from last season, so promos for the Oscars will have more viewers than they did last year.

None of this ratings speculation seems to have affected ad sales. Wang reported that ads were bought earlier than usual this year, and the majority of the ads were sold even before Cates tapped Rock in October. Sources have pegged the average cost of a 30-second spot at $1.6 million.

While the low-profile slate comes just after the Emmys and Golden Globes saw small ratings, the Oscars’ prominence among ad buyers might be immune to year-to-year variations.

“Ratings can fluctuate,” notes Bill Cella, chairman-CEO of media buyer Magna Global Worldwide, “but the reality is that it’s a very must-see-TV-type of environment, water-cooler type of environment, where people are going to talk about not just the talent the next day but creatives and the commercials.”

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll start seeing the films.

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