And the loser is … the Academy Awards ratings

Can new Oscar hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway help boost the telecast's ratings?

By Tom Comi

By now you have most likely heard the major nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards to be held next month, and it seems fair to say that it will be a competitive night between The Social Network, The King’s Speech and The Fighter. However, if history is an indication, we can most likely count on the biggest loser being the TV ratings.

That’s not a dig at any of the fine nominated movies this year, mind you. It’s just the reality that the buzz of the movies and how well they did at the box office serve as a significant barometer of how well received a telecast will be. Here’s some history on the Academy Awards that might win you a pie the next time you play Trivial Pursuit.

·       Over the past 15 years, the most watched telecast by far was in 1998 when Titanic was king of the world. More than 57 million people were watching, which equates to an incredible 35 rating. The only years that rating has been topped was when Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture in 1970 (43.4 rating) and Terms of Endearment did the same in 1984 (38 rating).

·       The lowest watched years were those in which films went under the radar and didn’t muster much revenue at theaters. The least attractive telecast in the past 40 years was 2008 when No Country for Old Men drew only 31.7 million viewers and a paltry 18.6 rating. That was followed by Chicago (2003, 20.5 rating), Slumdog Millionaire (2009, 21.6 rating) and Crash (2006, 22.9 rating).

To be clear, there is no correlation between the quality of the movies and the ratings, because all of the aforementioned movies are fantastic. In fact, one could even make the argument that some of them are better than Titanic. But what the Oscar producers struggle with every year is how to attract a mainstream audience to watch a show that honors movies they haven’t seen.

One thing that has yet to be proven is whether the host has any bearing on the overall ratings. Billy Crystal has been one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed hosts over the years, but did anybody actually tune in just because of him? Perhaps. And nobody really has any idea what to expect next month when actors Anne Hathaway and James Franco serve as MCs, but we’re pretty confident they aren’t going to move the ratings needle one way or the other.

One thing I can affirmatively state is that watching the Academy Awards on TV is one of my favorite nights of the year. I love the glitz, the suspense, the upsets and even one or two of the speeches. And if Toy Story 3 somehow manages to win Best Picture over all of those really serious movies, it could go down as one of the greatest moments in TV history.

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Credit: Bob D’Amico/ABC