Ratings for last night’s Oscars broadcast hit 8-year lows according to overnight data. No surprise really – especially if you’re a regular of this blog.
As highlighted here in the past, Nielsen data has told us over the years that there is a direct correlation between the number of black nominees, and total viewers of the actual broadcast…
"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/New York Times piece a year ago.
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 almost 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 in 2014 – which saw a 10-year high in terms of viewership that year!
With this year’s figures at the lowest since 2008, I, of course, checked to see how many black nominees there were that year (2008) in major categories: there was only one in a key category – Ruby Dee for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "American Gangster" as Mahalee Jones Lucas. She didn’t win by the way. And in the other 5 years of the last decade, when Oscar viewership was below 40 million, there were also zero to very few black nominees.
The second best year in terms of Oscar viewership ratings was in 2005, when, coincidentally, Chris Rock hosted the show (his first time), 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 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 Kevin Hart, Kerry Washington, Abraham Attah, Common, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Louis Gossett, Jr., and others – all gracing the stage at various moments throughout the ceremony. And, of course, the host, Chris Rock.
Last year, 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! I can’t say I noticed that similar push this year as well, although it wouldn’t surprise me if there was indeed pressure, all things considered.
Obviously, 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 this year’s ratings being at an 8-year low.
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 not just black audiences by the way. Diversity is more than just black and white.
Did you, or did you not watch the Oscars last night? If so, thoughts in general…