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Even When the Oscars’ Ratings Are Awful, the Money Is Still Very Good

The Oscars are doing everything they can to avoid ratings disaster, but here's why the ad slots have already sold out.

1998 Best Picture winner "Titanic" and 2021's Best Director Chloé Zhao ("Nomadland").

1998 Best Picture winner “Titanic” and 2021’s Best Director Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”)

The Everett Collection/Pool AP

You might have heard that the Oscars are facing a bit of a wobble. Ratings are dreadful — so bad that the Academy snipped eight categories from the live presentation to appease the network gods at ABC. Producer Will Packer tapped skateboarding and snowboarding legends Tony Hawk and Shaun White as presenters, presumably in hopes that their younger fans will follow. (As Packer noted to IndieWire’s Anne Thompson: “Everybody’s got an opinion about this damn show.”)

However, the Oscars have a secret weapon that has nothing to do with Beyoncé: The Academy Awards may have it bad, but the overarching collapse of linear TV ratings are worse. In that context, the little gold men still gleam.

Today, an ABC spokesperson reiterated to IndieWire the Oscars have never guaranteed viewership levels to advertisers and this year is no different. The same morning, Disney Advertising announced it sold out of commercial slots for Sunday’s Academy Awards. With rates estimated by Standard Media Index (SMI) at $1.71 million for 30 seconds — up from $1.53 million last year — this year could be the Oscars’ biggest money earner. (One person with knowledge of the negotiated rates who spoke with IndieWire on the condition of anonymity said certain 30-second slots this year went for as much as $2.2 million.)

According to data company Kantar, ad revenue for the awards ceremony was $102 million in 2016, $114 million in 2017, $132 million in 2018, $114 million in 2019, $129 million in 2020, and $115 million in 2021. So while there is some correlation to a particularly rough year like 2021, it still looks like a strong buy relative to the rest of linear television’s lackluster popularity.

There’s no getting around it: It is so not 1998. That year’s Oscars, buoyed by Best Picture winner “Titanic,” enjoyed its most-watched year ever with an average of 55.2 million total viewers. In second place remains 1995, when “Forrest Gump” won the top prize and averaged 48.3 million total viewers.

On Sunday, Best Picture will come down to “Belfast,” “CODA,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Dune,” “Drive My Car,” “King Richard,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley,” “The Power of the Dog,” and “West Side Story.” Those films have a combined worldwide box office (thus far) of around $633 million and the vast majority, $400 million, comes from “Dune” alone. The adjusted worldwide box office for “Titanic”? About $2.9 billion.

Of course, there’s a world of difference between 1998 and 2022. “CODA,” “Don’t Look Up,” and “The Power of the Dog” are streaming releases put into a few theaters for awards qualification, while “Dune” and “King Richard” went day-and-date on HBO Max.

Of this year’s 10 Best Picture nominees, only one, “West Side Story,” even has an awareness level north of 50 percent (it’s 55 percent), according to a Screen Engines/ASI poll conducted in early March and published by the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. None of the 10 have mass appeal (insert “Spider-Man: No Way Home” argument here) – and they have even less consumption.

As an Oscar-nominated actress once said, “It’s the pictures that got small.”

Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio in 1998 Best Picture Winner "Titanic"

Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio in 1998 Best Picture Winner “Titanic”

20th Century Fox Film Corp., photo courtesy of The Everett Collection

While those numbers sound rough, they represent an improvement over the 2021 Best Picture nominees. “Judas and the Black Messiah” had the largest awareness level: just 36 percent of the same poll’s 1,435 consumers. Covid’s theater closures crippled awareness and consumption of feature films; it has a similar impact on buzz for the Oscars show itself.

Until 2003, when “Chicago” dominated the 75th Academy Awards three days after the Iraq War began (ABC tried to postpone the show; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined, citing venue and cost issues), the Oscars drew at least 40 million live TV viewers annually and it was typically the most-watched non-sports telecast of the year. News of the war distracted and sobered both the Oscars audience and its participants, causing A-list presenters such as Cate Blanchett, Jim Carrey, and Will Smith to skip the show.

On Feb. 9, 2020 (before the global COVID-19 pandemic clobbered the U.S.), the Oscars managed just 23.6 million total viewers. Last year, the celebration of cinema waited until April 25 — the latest timing since Nielsen’s electronic records began — and settled for a disastrous 10.5 million total viewers. ABC still pays about $100 million per year for the rights to air the awards show and is contractually locked in through 2028.

Last year’s 56 percent viewership decline represented the worst ever for the Academy Awards. Despite everyone’s best efforts at putting on a live, semi-in-person show (and that fingers-crossed delay to late April), the poor ratings performance was not unexpected. The earlier 2021 Golden Globes and the 2021 Grammys also lost more than 50 percent of their viewership year over year. The Emmys fared better but had the advantages of being a fall show with an already-low starting point. (Also, host Jimmy Kimmel and the creative producers also did a particularly excellent job with that one.)

While Oscars ad revenue remains strong, its waning viewership represents a loss of cultural cachet — and that’s what it trades on, more than any other awards show. When 50 million out of 275 million Americans (about 18 percent) are watching your show, as was the case in the late ’90s, you are relevant. When 10 million of 333 million (3 percent) watch, as was the case last year, you are not.

Frances McDormand stars in "Nomadland"

Frances McDormand in 2021 Best Picture winner “Nomadland”


At a time when the show is dying for normalcy, Sunday’s 94th Academy Awards will be for all intents and purposes a normal Oscars. The glaring exception is the controversial decision made specifically to ensure 10.5 million viewers don’t happen again: The Oscars will pre-tape three short film awards as well as those for editing, score, sound, hair and makeup, and production design in front of a live studio audience (aka Oscar attendees who are not distracted by the ongoing red carpet) and then edit the winners into the ceremony broadcast. (ABC actually wanted to scrub a dozen awards from the broadcast’s lineup, but negotiations saved four categories.)

The notion is by sacrificing what some believe to be the least-interesting categories (ahem), it will keep the telecast from running beyond its 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. primetime slot and Nielsen averages (generally compiled and distributed to clients in 15-minute intervals) will rise.

The double-digit Best Picture nominee tally, a trio of hosts in Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes after three years without a host and some unusual presenter choices (Travis Barker, everyone!) are also attempts to combat low interest. Final 2022 Oscars viewership is expected Tuesday.

Below, see Oscars viewership through the decades since 1988. Due to the nature of the live event, we did not consider delayed viewing numbers (which would barely change anything but also disproportionately favor recent years). All numbers come from Nielsen and include viewers of any age from 2 and older. (Editor’s note: Not a ton of toddlers watch the Oscars, Tony Hawk or no Tony Hawk.)

Oscars viewers since 1988. Source: Nielsen

Oscars viewers since 1988. Source: Nielsen

The 94th annual Academy Awards air Sunday starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC.

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