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Sometimes when the bar is set so low, you can surprise people by clearing it.

That’s what happened with this year’s Oscar ratings, which exceeded some expectations even as the Oscarcast came in as the third least watched of all time.

There had been gloom-and-doom predictions about ratings for the 78th annual Academy Awards soon after noms were announced in January. A bevy of box office-challenged pics, heavy on political themes, didn’t figure to play especially well outside large urban markets.

But in the end, ABC and the Academy have reason to be pleased with the tune-in for Sunday night, when the kudocast averaged a Nielsen-estimated 38.8 million viewers from 8 to 11:30 p.m. ET. That’s an 8% decline from last year (42.1 million) but comfortably ahead of the stunningly low 2003 telecast (33 million).

This year’s crowd — larger than that for the most recent Emmy and Golden Globes shows combined — also is bigger than the Academy Award telecasts in 1986 and 1987 (although population growth since then makes this a not-so-impressive feat).

And while there may indeed be a cultural schism between the red carpet and the red states, Sunday’s telecast proved popular enough across the land to keep the Oscars in heady ratings company. Kudocast ranks higher than all primetime entertainment programs this season, including the 37.9 million who watched “Grey’s Anatomy” after the Super Bowl on ABC and the 35.5 million who watched the season’s top-rated night of Fox’s “American Idol.”

And in the key adults 18-49 demo, Sunday’s estimated 13.9 rating (equating to roughly 18.1 million viewers) ranks behind only the one episode of “Grey’s” and two installments of “Idol” from January.

First-time host Jon Stewart, who has built a young fan base via “The Daily Show” on cable’s Comedy Central, stirred interest among young men. While the overall aud for the Oscars was down 8%, the rating among men 18-34 was up 5%.

Makeup of this year’s 18-49 aud was roughly 58% male, compared with 61% last year.

The Oscars generated a 28.2 household rating/45 share in Los Angeles, according to Nielsen’s metered-market overnights, and a 36.5/51 in New York. Other top markets were Chicago (33.2/47), Philadelphia (31.7/46), San Francisco (31.1/51) and Atlanta (30.7/43).

In households nationally, this year’s estimated 23.0 rating/35 share is the second-lowest ever, ahead of the 20.4/32 in 2003.

The other broadcast nets were an afterthought Sunday, each offering either crime-drama repeats or young, urban-skewing theatricals like “8 Mile” and “Bad Boys 2.” A special 10 o’clock repeat of CBS drama “CSI” was the night’s top non-Oscar program (prelim 3.4/8 in 18-49, 10.5 million viewers overall).

Final numbers for the Academy Awards, as well as ABC’s Oscar pre-show, will be issued by Nielsen today.

Following the Oscars and late local news, ABC’s special episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” averaged a preliminary 4.4 million viewers and a 1.7 rating among adults 18-49 — the show’s third-best numbers to date, lagging only its two post-Super Bowl airings.