A follow-up to my pre-Oscars telecast piece, published last week, on what Nielsen data says is a direct correlation between the number of black nominees, and total viewers of the actual broadcast…
Revealed earlier today, ratings for last night’s 87th Academy Awards saw a six-year low, drawing 36.6 million total viewers, according to ABC, the lowest total since 2009, which, coincidentally, also had 36.6 million viewers. This year’s figure is down from last year’s broadcast, which hit a 10-year high with 43.74 million viewers.
“With remarkable consistency, African-American viewers have showed up in large numbers to watch the Oscar broadcast when it featured a strong lineup of black nominees. But black viewers have gone missing when the core African-American presence was diminished, as it is this year,” said the Nielsen piece.
So can we attribute this year’s significant drop in viewership to an absence of black viewers, who boycotted the broadcast because of the lack of expected black nominees?
Consider that, according to Nielsen, 5 times in the last 10 years, the Oscar broadcast has drawn more than 40 million viewers. And in all five instances, the black audience was solely responsible for driving that figure above 40 million, if only because each of those 5 years included multiple black nominees (and winners) in key categories, like Forest Whitaker, Eddie Murphy, Djimon Hounsou, Will Smith and Jennifer Hudson in 2007; Denzel Washington and Quvenzhané Wallis, along with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Django Unchained,” in 2013; Barkhad Abdi, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, John Ridley, and Steve McQueen, in addition to “12 Years a Slave” itself for Best Picture, last year – which, again, saw a 10-year high in terms of viewership!
With this year’s figures at the lowest since 2009, I, of course, checked to see how many black nominees there were that year: there were only 2 in key categories (much like this year) – both Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were nominated for Best Supporting Actress (for “Doubt” and “Benjamin Button” respectively). Neither of them won by the way. And in the other 5 years of the last decade, when Oscar viewership was below 40 million, there were a lot fewer black nominees.
The second best year in terms of Oscar viewership ratings was in 2005, when Chris Rock hosted the show, and several black actors were nominated, including Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx (who was nominated in 2 different categories that year – a rarity), Morgan Freeman and Sophie Okonedo; also the film “Ray” was nominated for best picture; “Hotel Rwanda” for Best Original Screenplay, and “Tupac: Resurrection” for Best Documentary. Roughly 5.3 million black viewers tuned in, according to Nielsen, helping to lift the show’s draw to over 42 million viewers.
Why does any of this matter, you might be wondering? Well, a drop in ratings is not a good thing for any broadcast, including the Academy Awards show. As the Nielsen piece I published last week states, “The Oscar telecast generates by far the biggest part of the Academy’s $151.5 million annual revenue, and maintaining high ratings is essential to its financial success. Academy leaders are also aware that a failure to attract a diverse audience risks making the awards less relevant to new generations of viewers.”
So there you have it: money; profit. Isn’t that what it always comes down to? So, a significant drop in ratings would, of course, be of enormous concern for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has been a frequent target over the years for its overwhelmingly white membership.
Seemingly to help avoid an expected ratings slump this year (likely because they were aware of what past data shows), especially considering social media campaigns calling for a boycott of the Oscars telecast for the lack of diversity among its nominees, producers of the show peppered up its list of presenters and performers with a long list of black talents, including David Oyelowo, Viola Davis, Kevin Hart, Zoe Saldana, Octavia Spencer, Oprah Winfrey, Kerry Washington, Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Eddie Murphy, Terrence Howard, and others (see my “There Will Be Black People on Oscar’s Stage at This Year’s Academy Awards Event…“) – all gracing the stage at various moments throughout the ceremony. It was also noted that ABC aggressively promoted the telecast during shows in its lineup with large African American followings, like “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “black-ish.” The network was said to have even run ads for the Oscar telecast on black cable TV network, BET!
Considering all of that, it’s hard not to assume that there was an intent there to draw and maintain black audiences.
Evidently, it doesn’t look like it worked, given all of the above.
So, essentially, like a lot of things, it comes down to dollars and cents. There is money to made in diversity. And maybe the studio movie business will eventually catch up to the TV business, where there’s seemingly more diversity, as more and more TV networks are beginning to recognize the ratings and profit potential in producing content for black audiences – a seeming trend that we’ve been making note of here on S&A, especially during the current pilot season.
Did you, or did you not watch the Oscars last night?