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Youth was served

Rock brings Oscar younger auds

In a year when the movies themselves didn’t create much excitement, controversial comic Chris Rock helped the Academy Awards telecast on ABC attract a younger, more urban aud.

Although overall ratings were down a bit vs. last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences accomplished its goal of generating a buzz surrounding the show — and at the same time avoiding the significant year-to-year losses of other kudocasts like the Golden Globes and Grammys.

According to preliminary nationals from Nielsen that will be finalized today, the 77th annual Oscarcast (8:30-11:45 p.m. ET) averaged 41.5 million viewers overall, down 5% or 6% from last year but up nicely over the stunningly low 33 million who tuned in to see “Chicago” honored as best picture in 2002.

This makes it the highest-rated entertainment telecast of the season, with the 41.5 million viewers more than the Grammys (18.8 million) and Globes (16.8 million) combined.

Kudocast fared well vs. recent years in key demographic categories, down just 3% year-to-year in adults 18-49 (14.9 rating vs. 15.3) and up 3% in adults 18-34 to a three-year high.

‘Extremely pleased’

“We’re extremely pleased with the ratings,” said Andrea Wong, ABC exec VP of alternative programming, “and it’s great to see growth among 18-34, which means there’s interest from a new generation of viewers. Chris Rock deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Also noticeable was a stronger turnout in the nation’s largest markets. Rock’s back yard of New York, for example, generated a huge 40.2 rating/54 share during primetime Sunday — up 24% (or roughly 560,000 households) vs. last year’s 32.5 rating/44 share.

While other top 10 markets like Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas were either up or down slightly year-to-year, joining New York in showing substantial growth were Washington, D.C. (up 15%), Los Angeles (up 9%) and Detroit (up 7%).

Atlanta (down 18%), Pittsburgh (off 15%) and Indianapolis (down 12%) were among top 25 markets showing double-digit declines.

Home-court advantage

Another factor helping ABC was that it didn’t have to compete against itself: In a stretch of six Sundays, the People’s Choice Awards on CBS, Golden Globe Awards on NBC and Grammy Awards on CBS all took significant year-to-year ratings hits, in part because they faced off opposite ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” the hottest Sunday program to come around in years.

The Golden Globes telecast, in particular, declined by a staggering 40% vs. last year, with the blame for some of its decline also laid at the feet of carrier NBC, which has gone from first to fourth place in a year’s time.

In addition to Rock shaking things up as host, the Academy and producer Gil Cates also tried to revitalize the proceedings, which have been criticized as too staid and predictable. Some awards were handed out in the audience, eliminating a few long walks to the stage, and nominees and winners of craftsmanship and technical awards were already gathered onstage when their awards were announced.

Such tactics created a shorter telecast this season (three hours, 15 minutes), which also helped the ratings picture. Since kudocasts tend to peak in rating at around 10 o’clock, any show that is still dragging on much past 11 reaps ever-diminishing returns.

“It’s always good to have a strong, energetic, tight-paced show, and that’s what we got,” ABC’s Wong said. “This year was significantly shorter, and it’s great to have the audience there at 11 when the big awards came on.”

Still a draw

Making this year’s solid ratings story more impressive is that none of the picture nominees has grossed more than $100 million, meaning that much of the audience was unfamiliar with the films or the performances of their leading thesps.

Also Sunday, ABC’s annual “Barbara Walters Special” (4.1 rating in adults 18-49, 12.6 million viewers overall) and the net’s red-carpet arrivals show “Oscar Countdown 2005” (9.5 in 18-49, 27.5 million) were both up a bit year-to-year in demos.

On the cable side, E! (Star Jones, with special correspondent Kathy Griffin) led the red-carpet specs with a 3.5 metered-market household rating (down from last year’s 4.4) — still well ahead of TV Guide Channel (Joan Rivers and Melissa Rivers), whose 1.0 rating repped a big gain from its tiny 0.4 of the previous year.

Opposite ABC’s Oscar coverage on Sunday, Fox fared best with its umpteenth rebroadcast of “Independence Day,” which averaged roughly 9.3 million viewers and a 3.9 rating/9 share in adults 18-49. Funneling viewers to the pic was Fox Sports’ coverage of a NASCAR Nextel Cup racing event from Fontana, Calif., which delivered a 7.1 household rating/14 share in the overnights — the highest ever for a regular-season race (excluding Daytona 500) on Fox.

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