The trend of TV ratings for the Oscars has been down, almost relentlessly in recent years. Last year, 26.5 million people watched the Oscars, a collapse from the previous year. There is no obvious reason to think the figures will recover.
The number of people who watched the 2017 Oscars was 32.9 million, which shows how big the decline was in 2018. Over the past decade, the highest rating for the Oscars was 47.3 million in 2014. The best year for ratings since Nielsen started to keep figures was 1998, when “Titanic” won Best Picture. Just over 105 million people watched that year.
Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars in 1998. Ellen DeGeneres hosted the show in 2014. Jimmy Kimmel hosted last year. However, there is no strong evidence that the host drives ratings. This year is the first in decades that the show will have no official host at all. There is speculation that it will help ratings because entertainment personalities often have people who do not like them. And there is just as much speculation in the other direction. A famous host, one theory goes, brings in at least some part of the audience
One reason this year’s show may reverse the trend is the box office track record of the movies. More people will have seen at least one of the films than has been the case in most years past. Best Picture nominee “Black Panther” had ticket sales of $700 million domestically, which makes it one of the most successful movies of all time, based on box office numbers. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” another Best Picture nominee, posted very high ticket sales of $213 million. Nominee “A Star Is Born” had ticket sales of $210 million.
One cause for the drop in ratings, and one that will not go away, is the ability of people to stream the show over broadband. ABC, which will televise the show this year, may have already undermined its chance for a rise in Oscar ratings. It will stream the show itself. All anyone who wants to use this medium needs to do is enter information on their broadband account. Watched this way, the show is free. Many industry experts expect younger people to turn their TVs off and stream the Oscars. In many cases, these are people who already stream all the programs they watch, having dropped pay television completely.
The Achilles heel of the Oscars is its length. It was three hours and 50 minutes last year, long, but not unusually so. Viewers need to stay up until midnight on a day before work. The Best Picture award is left until the very end. TV executives and the Oscar producers continue to worry that if the length is not sharply cut, ratings will never rise again.
When the preliminary rating figures for this year’s Oscars are posted Monday, the first question is whether there were 27 million or more viewers. If so, it may be only a very modest victory, unless there is an unexpected surge to back above the 33 million mark figure from 2017. Even if that happens, the ratings will still only be treading water.