ABC’s Oscars telecast Sunday night showed significant growth: Sunday’s 91st Academy Awards drew a preliminary average audience of 29.6 million viewers, an 11.5 percent increase from 2018. In the coveted 18-49 adult demo, the broadcast scored a 7.7 rating, which was a 13 percent gain. In metered market households, the Oscars drew a 20.6 rating, up approximately 6 percent from last year.
Good news, but not exactly great. While the show is TV’s most-watched entertainment telecast in two years — No. 3 behind last year’s “This Is Us” post-Super Bowl episode (33.4 million viewers, 11.6 rating) and ABC’s infamous 2017 Oscars (32.9 million viewers, 9.1 rating) — it’s still the second-worst Oscar ratings in its history.
It wasn’t that difficult to increase viewership since 2018’s show hit an all-time low, drawing 26.54 million viewers and a 6.8 rating in the 18-49 demo. There’s nowhere to go but up.
The odds were in its favor: History tells us that when the bigger box-office films are favored to win Best Picture, Oscars telecast numbers respond accordingly. The 70th Academy Awards in 1998 drew a whopping 57.25 million viewers in part thanks to the success of “Titanic” ($600 million domestic box office, pre-Oscars), while the 76th Academy Awards drew 43.56 million viewers thanks to “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” ($368 million domestic, pre-Oscars).
“Obviously, people tune in for the big categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress,” said ABC entertainment president Karey Burke at the Television Critics Association press tour panel earlier this month. “Particularly this year, given so many of the nominees are blockbusters, that we will see… people staying tuned throughout the show to see who’s going to win those big awards.”
Capitalizing on box-office popularity inspired the Academy’s ill-advised and short-lived plans to add a Best Popular Film category. It was hardly needed this year, anyway: Three of the eight Best Picture nominees were blockbusters at the domestic box office. “A Star Is Born” earned approximately $210 million, “Bohemian Rhapsody” earned $213 million, and “Black Panther” earned a sweet $700 million in North America.
In that same vein, more inclusivity at the box office could also spell a more diverse viewership for the Oscars. Although Nielsen doesn’t release ratings broken down by race or ethnicity, it stands to reason that more black viewers would tune in the year that “Black Panther” and Spike Lee were up for major awards.
As for the show, ABC went through many major changes to its planned program, from Kevin Hart stepping down as host to reinstating the live awards presentation of the Cinematography, Editing, Make-Up and Hairstyling, and Live Action Short categories. While that decision didn’t likely impact viewership, ABC including four of the five nominated songs was a smart move.
In addition to Queen and Adam Lambert teaming up for the show opener, Jennifer Hudson offered a powerful rendition of “I’ll Fight” (“RBG”), Bette Midler doing justice to the lullaby “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (“Mary Poppins Returns”), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings singing “When a Cowboy Trades his Spurs for Wings” (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”). But it was the rendition of “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” was a telecast highlight — a real showstopper. Moving and well produced, the beautiful performance demonstrated what the Oscars could offer beyond acceptance speeches and montages. It provided fresh and original entertainment value without straying from the business of movies.
Prior to airing, ABC promised to keep the telecast to three hours. The show went over by 13 minutes, but that’s still a major improvement; last year’s show ran an excruciating 3 hours and 54 minutes. Limiting the time on acceptance speeches while also dispensing with a host, prolonged comedic bits, and multiple montages streamlined the show. ABC’s plans to limit the broadcast allowed the network to program its new action comedy “Whiskey Cavalier” to air after the Oscars. This bold move wouldn’t have worked with a bloated broadcast.