The TV Column: It's a Big Night for Oscar, as Long as You Ignore the Late Shift

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An Academy Awards overhauled from top to bottom and littered with appearances by OMG-It's-Zac-Efron-From-"High School Musical"! clocked 36.3 million viewers Sunday, making it the most watched non-Super Bowl telecast in two years on any network.

That's TV-speak for bigger than the past two "American Idol" season debuts (30.4 million and 33.4 million viewers) and the two most recent "American Idol" season finales (32 million and 31 million).

Once again, Nielsen, at ABC's behest, engaged in its annual Academy Awards Hanky Panky. The 36.3 million viewers is the average audience between 8:30 p.m. EST, when the show started, and 11:25 p.m., when the awards for Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Picture had yet to be handed out.

Kate Winslet's acceptance speech? Not part of the "official" Academy Awards telecast, according to Nielsen Reality. Likewise Sean Penn's moving acceptance speech, and those adorable children who went up onstage when "Slumdog Millionaire" took the derby's biggest win.

Nielsen agrees to this altered reality because 11:25 p.m. is when ABC aired the ceremony's final "national" ad break. After that, the ad breaks were all listed as "local" and the ad time chalked up to local TV stations. ABC wants it this way because, once a show slides past 11 p.m., its ratings usually begin to decline as exhausted viewers bail. Neither Nielsen nor ABC had a rating they were willing to share for the period between 11:25 and when the ceremony actually ended close to midnight.

So like every year, everyone's playing along this year with the 36.3 million viewers, which is about 4 million more than last year's Oscarcast. That's extremely good news not only for ABC, which broadcast the annual orgy of excess, but also for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, given that last year's trophy hand-out attracted the smallest audience in Oscar history: 32 million viewers.

It also speaks well of the major changes to the show, and the choice of Hugh Jackman as host, despite what TV critics might have to say about both.

The ratings jump certainly can't be attributed to the winners in the glam categories -- you know, Best Actor, Actress and flick -- because none were pop-culture icons or box office barn-burners: Sean Penn, Kate Winslet (who for some reason showed up wearing her mother's hair) and "Slumdog Millionaire," in order. Ditto the Supporting Actress and Actor nods to Penélope Cruz and Heath Ledger. Ledger might have been a ratings magnet had millions not already seen him posthumously win trophies for his turn as the Joker in the latest Batman flick at the Golden Globe Awards on NBC, the SAG Awards on TNT/TBS and the BAFTA Awards on BBC America.

Sadly, trophy fatigue is the biggest challenge facing the Oscarcast, year after year. That, and the box office mojo of the films nominated for Best Picture. In 1998, the year "Titanic" copped the Best Picture win -- that broadcast still holds the crown as the most watched Academy Awards ever -- more than 55 million tuned in.

But turns out, even when it's a foregone conclusion that a low-budget film such as "Slumdog Millionaire" is going to walk away with the Best Picture statuette, there are things you can do to help the show, ratings-wise, behind the scenes.

Like Jackman as host, although critics appear not to have liked the choice, based on his having never hosted a show on Comedy Central or headlined a comedy special on HBO. Whatev.

Some TV critics, including our Tom Shales, suggested Tina Fey and Steve Martin should have hosted. They were among the most entertaining presenter-couples during Sunday night's ceremony. Fey has never hosted the Academy Awards but can be counted to draw about 8 million viewers -- that's this season's average for her NBC sitcom "30 Rock." Martin, on the other hand, has hosted the Academy Awards -- most recently in 2003, when the show clocked a dismal 33 million viewers.

In fairness to Martin, that year the musical "Chicago" won the trophy for Best Picture -- and if there is one thing this country can get behind, it's the notion that it does not like musicals. Apparently this year's Oscar producer did not get that memo, hence this year's hodgepodge Hooray for Hollywood Musicals number about halfway through Sunday's ceremony -- a.k.a. The Perfect Potty Break.

In another change, initiated by new producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, the little Oscars were handed out in order of how a movie actually gets made -- which was useful for those of you who did not know a Hollywood movie starts with a screenplay or a really good idea for a poster.

Another welcome change to this year's show: no speech from the president of the film academy. Instead, this year's program showcased the talents of Efron, cutest guy in "High School Musical," the money-printing franchise at ABC parent Disney. In addition to his appearance on the red carpet, where he pronounced the Academy Awards even more "awesome" than his high school prom (don't let him kid you -- the guy's 21 years old), he was among the evening's presenters, sang in that Hooray for Hollywood Musicals number, and appeared at least twice in clips from "High School Musical 3" included in the Oscarcast's Romance in Film melange. And, as it so happens, "High School Musical 3" just came out on DVD -- what are the odds?

But the biggest change of all: This year, before announcing the winner in each of the glam acting derbies, the producer trotted out five previous winners, and each was assigned to say something nice or amusing about each of this year's nominees. In each category, the producer appears to have made an effort to include the oldest ambulatory past-winner, resulting in gawk-worthy appearances by the likes of Eva Marie Saint, Joel Grey and Sophia Loren. And nobody can plant their hand on their hip like Sophia Loren -- even at 74.

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