Shock and awe downed Oscar on Sunday night.
The decision by the Academy Awards producers to suck all the fun out of this year's broadcast, to atone for proceeding with the ceremony during wartime, drove the show to its lowest ratings on record.
All but 33.1 million of the most intrepid trophy-show viewers were driven off by the prospect of an Academy Awards sans glitz, glam or much spontaneity.
That's down sharply from the nearly 42 million who watched last year's Oscarcast, and a nosedive from the record 55.2 million in '98 who saw "Titanic" named best flick.
Oscarcast producer Gil Cates and Motion Picture Academy President Frank Pierson announced last Tuesday that they would tone down this year's ceremony to "reflect the soberness and seriousness of the circumstances we're faced with," as Pierson explained.
Operation Sober and Serious had actually begun when ABC torpedoed Barbara Walters's pre-Oscarcast celebrity chitchat special. Replacing it with ABC News war coverage was appropriate but hardly the ideal walk-up show to a ceremony that showered honors on a musical about murderous showgirls.
Cates and Pierson also jettisoned the annual Red Carpet Arrivals Parade, depriving viewers of its traditional bleachers of screaming fans, its flock of fawning journalists and the highly competitive Best Dress/Best Diamonds derby that helps set the mood for the four-hour exercise in self-adulation.
The end result was an Oscar audience that was no match for the final broadcast of Fox's reality series "Joe Millionaire," which averaged 40 million viewers in February, or for the season opener of NBC's "Friends," which logged 34 million fans last September.
(Which is why ABC was bragging yesterday that the Oscar show was the season's most watched entertainment "special" rather than the most watched entertainment "program.")
On the other hand, the absence of some key Oscar winners and chattier Oscar presenters -- some of whom questioned the good taste of going on with the show -- did bring in the broadcast at a trim 3 1/2 hours.
ABC speculated yesterday that America's preoccupation with the war in Iraq may have distracted some usual Oscar watchers. ABC chief researcher Larry Hyams noted that the "churn rate" was the show's highest on record, going back to 1955. That's the rate of people flipping in and out of the program to, presumably, check up on the war on news channels. Sunday numbers for cable news networks were not available at press time.
Viewers were definitely not migrating to other broadcast networks. CBS scored only about 8 million viewers with its combo of college basketball and "60 Minutes"; NBC bagged a puny 7.5 million with "Fear Factor" and the Adam Sandler flick "Billy Madison"; and Fox clocked a measly 6.3 million viewers with "The Lost World: Jurassic Park."
According to digital video recorder company TiVo, Oscar viewership among its customers dropped an average of 25 percent during commercial breaks. The company speculated that may have been the result of viewers trying to keep track of war developments. Lesson here: When trying to program a trophy show opposite a war, lose some of the ad breaks.
And maybe, just maybe, if Oscar organizers hadn't rolled up the red carpet and had instead allowed the foreign press to put war-related questions to Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Barbra Streisand and Nicole Kidman, the Academy Awards might not have sunk to its smallest numbers ever.
Among TiVo customers -- granted, a very small sample -- the most watched and re-watched moments of the Oscar broadcast were Best Actor winner Adrien Brody's call for peace and Best Documentary Feature winner Michael Moore's denunciation of President Bush and the war.