Oscars Down, But Certainly Not Out

Ratings surely won’t show that more people may consume this year’s program than have in years

On Monday, reporters will shake off the Oscars party hangover and write about how the telecast is down 15% from last year. Or maybe it’s down 13%, or 17%. We don’t know the number, but we know it will be down—just as it was last year, when 36.6 million tuned in, off 15% from 2014, and the least-viewed Oscars telecast since 2009.

I’ll be writing that story too. But in this multiplatform world, that’s a somewhat cynical—and certainly outmoded—way of looking at things. After all, how many millions will watch host Chris Rock eviscerate the Academy or Leo DiCaprio claim his trophies on a digital platform, or consume it on social media, or both?

Rock, for his part, has 3.77 million Twitter followers, many of whom saw him refer to the Oscars last month as “The White BET Awards.”

“If you add in all that usage, it will be as good or better than it’s been in the past,” says Dave Smith, CEO at media consultancy SmithGeiger. Alas, measurement for all that consumption, he adds, “unfortunately does not exist.”

Until Nielsen’s Total Audience Measurement captures them all, we end up with a variety of numbers—the decreasing TV one, and the fuzzy multiplatform one that some, including Smith, believe will increase this year. “The truth of the matter is, everything is television,” he says. “Your phone is television. Your computer is television. Your television is television.”

The Oscars goes on amidst plenty of controversy, symbolized by the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. And so all eyes are on Rock to make sense of the snub of minority films and performers, or at least rip the people responsible for it. “What probably helps [ratings] a lot is, what’s Chris gonna say?” says Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group senior VP/director of content strategy. “That may be the high point of the night.”

A good couple of zingers at the top, notes Carroll, and viewers will want to stick around until later, when Rock can push the envelope further with his edgy content.

A related boycott of the telecast probably won’t be enough affect ratings, believes Smith. But the Oscars has some things working against it this year, such as a batch of Best Picture hopefuls that lacks box office mojo, and the four major acting prizes that many believe are locked up for the frontrunners. “When you don’t have a lot of suspense, that has an impact,” says Carroll.

There’s also the issue of awards events saturation, with the SAG Awards and Golden Globes and BAFTAs and others I may be forgetting leading up to the Oscars. In the old days, people tuned in to see their favorite film stars all dressed up. There are entire channels dedicated to that now.

“In its heyday, viewers had far fewer opportunities to see celebrities and now it’s hard to avoid them,” says Dr. Amanda Lotz, University of Michigan-based media scholar. “The Oscars may be a viewing event, but the show offers much less entertainment value than events such as the Super Bowl, or even the performance-filled Grammy Awards.”

But it’s still the Oscars—still the “Super Bowl of awards shows,” as Smith puts it. Tarnished as it may be in this era of Netflix and a thousand entertainment options, the telecast on ABC will remain a prestigious property for the foreseeable future. “It’s still able to attract substantial budgets from advertisers who want to be associated with it,” says Brian Wieser, senior research analyst at Pivotal Research.  

Live event programming, whether it’s the NFL or a network musical or an awards show, continues to stand out in this noisy media age. “Other than the Super Bowl, it’s the one event where people have a party to watch the telecast,” says Carroll. “That isn’t going to change.”