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Box-Office Blues Make for an Oscar Washout

Actress Marion Cotillard, of France, poses with her Oscar statuette on the press line at the Elton John Oscar Party in West Hollywood, Calif. on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
Actress Marion Cotillard, of France, poses with her Oscar statuette on the press line at the Elton John Oscar Party in West Hollywood, Calif. on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg) (Dan Steinberg - AP)
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By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An Academy Awards show dominated by films no one's seen, actors no one's heard of, the most irritating songs since "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" and, ironically, some of the worst writing since "Cavemen" clocked the trophy show's smallest audience on record -- about 32 million viewers.

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That beats the previous low in 2003 by 1 million viewers. That year, industry navel-gazers blamed the lousy Oscar ratings on the fact that the trophy show aired shortly after the United States invaded Iraq and viewers just weren't in the mood. That, and the fact that a musical, "Chicago," had been named Best Picture.

This year, of course, they can't use that argument, owing to the war being in its sixth year and the best-pic winner, "No Country for Old Men," is a grisly Coen brothers flick about a psycho killer with bad hair.

This year's audience is the smallest for the Oscarcast since 1974, when Nielsen began reporting the actual number of viewers watching a program. The show's household ratings -- just 18.7 percent of the country's TV homes were tuned to the Oscars -- makes it the lowest-rated Academy Awards since the show was first televised nationally in 1953, with Bob Hope hosting.

Casting about for an explanation, some navel-gazers speculate the trophy show's low numbers may be further evidence of the "hangover effect" of the prolonged writers' strike. It does appear viewers aren't rushing back to broadcast TV, even though the strike ended more than a week before the Oscarcast, giving the all-clear signal for A-list celebs to attend and allowing writers to participate in the show.

And, what writing it was.

Host Jon Stewart: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the program. Our next presenter is either an internationally acclaimed movie star or an auto dealership. Ladies and gentlemen, Harrison Ford.

Harrison Ford: Movies are made of ideas. And pictures. And words. Before anyone gets in front of a camera, somebody sits in a room, armed only with a computer and their imagination. Writing the words that bring those ideas to life. The nominees for original screenplay are --

But, getting back to the Oscars' relatively lousy ratings -- ignominiously whomped by last month's season debut of "American Idol" (33.5 million viewers) -- it's more likely Sunday's show got clobbered by the collective Best Picture nominees.

Historically, the Oscarcast pulls in a bigger haul when box-office hits are favored to win the Best Picture trophy. More than 55 million viewers tuned in in 1998, the year of "Titanic," which did close to $500 million at the box office pre-Oscars. The 2004 ceremony in which "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (pre-Oscar box office of $364 million) took Best Picture and 10 other trophies drew nearly 44 million viewers.

By Sunday, hardly anyone had seen this year's Best Picture nominees -- "Juno," "No Country for Old Men," "Atonement," "Michael Clayton" and "There Will Be Blood." By "hardly anyone" we mean this year's Best Picture winner, "No Country for Old Men," had done $64 million at the box office walking up to the trophy show -- puny in comparison to "Titanic." And "Juno," the most successful of this year's crop of best-pic noms, has clocked $130 million at the box office but is only the 18th most successful movie of last year.

Meanwhile, "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third," "Transformers" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" were all members of last year's $300 million club but were nowhere to be found in the glam derby's Oscar night.


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