And the Oscars Go to 39 Million, but Who's Counting?

Memphis rappers Three 6 Mafia, who sparked the Academy Awards with a live performance of
Memphis rappers Three 6 Mafia, who sparked the Academy Awards with a live performance of "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." Not to mention a certain Comedy Central talk show host. (By Kevork Djansezian -- Associated Press)
By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Despite its star wattage and earlier start time, this year's Academy Awards broadcast bagged its second smallest audience in nearly two decades, according to preliminary stats.

Almost 39 million viewers slogged through Sunday's 3 1/2- hour parade of lent jewels, borrowed gowns and faux humility at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. That's down about 3 million viewers from last year, and the smallest crowd since 2003, when a mere 33 million tuned in to see musical "Chicago" named the year's Best Picture, just days after the start of the war in Iraq.

Before that, the last time the Oscarcast dropped below 40 million viewers was 1987.

Pundits had predicted this year would be among the lower-rated Academy Awards.

It was an easy call, given that none of this year's best-flick nominees was considered "mainstream" -- "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Munich" and winner "Crash" collectively have seen less box-office action than the most recent "Star Wars" alone.

This year's host, Jon Stewart, also has niche appeal, averaging just 1.4 million viewers this season for his Comedy Central late-night program, "The Daily Show."

Additionally, Stewart got mixed reviews for his performance Sunday night; the Kodak Theatre crowd certainly treated him throughout the night like an interloper.

The show itself was largely bereft of spontaneity, though the movie industry audience got a swift kick about halfway through when rap group Three 6 Mafia's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from "Hustle & Flow," was named Best Original Song.

No sooner did the Kodak Krowd recover from that one than Jack Nicholson, to thunderous applause, apparently just for not being Jon Stewart, stunned them again with news that "Crash" had nabbed the night's final trophy, Best Picture, triumphing over odds-on fave "Brokeback Mountain."

Last year's Chris Rock-hosted horse race likewise included no box-office blockbusters, but the show managed to average about 42 million viewers, who watched Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" secure the top trophy, as predicted.

In 2004, on the other hand, nearly 44 million tuned in to see "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" sweep the trophy show.

But the reigning champ remains the 1998 Oscar broadcast, when more than 55 million tuned in to see "Titanic" cop the big prize.

This year's Academy Awards broadcast started at 8 p.m. -- 30 minutes earlier than usual -- presumably in an effort to get the show to end earlier, when the number of Homes Using Television is higher. And yet it wrapped around 11:30, same as last year.

Eating up all that extra time: tributes to film noir, to bioflicks, to films that teach us to be better people; pleas to watch movies in theaters instead of on DVD; produced pieces that looked like some of the better comedy bits from "The Daily Show"; nominated-song performances that looked like some of the better comedy bits from "The Daily Show."

ABC noted yesterday that Sunday's show stands as the most watched entertainment telecast this season to date.

Oscar won't hold that title for long: Sunday's orgy of excess came in only about 3.3 million viewers ahead of this season's "American Idol" season debut, and the real action in the singing competition, among the 12 finalists, doesn't kick off until next week.

Meanwhile, did you know that a 30-second commercial on the Academy Awards reportedly cost $1.7 million while a commercial on "Idol" this season, according to news reports, has been put in the $650,000-$700,000 range?

© 2006 The Washington Post Company