An average of 39.9 million viewers watched ABC's broadcast of the Academy Awards Sunday night, the network said yesterday.

Only the thing is, the trophy show ran well into Monday morning.

About 22 minutes into Monday morning, in fact. And that included most of the big glam categories: Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.

Only ABC suits know how many people watched that part of the show, and they're not talking. Ditto Nielsen. Because the last national ad break in the Academy Awards telecast aired at 11:59 p.m., the network can instruct Nielsen to stop counting there for the record books.

And it did.

In the real world, after midnight, film history was made when Martin Scorsese finally snagged a Best Director Oscar, Forest Whitaker gave a killer speech when he was named Best Actor, and "The Departed" was crowned the year's Best Picture.

Just not in Nielsen's world, or ABC's world, where the broadcast stopped at 11:59 p.m. because when the show runs past midnight, ABC knows, viewers give up and turn in for the night, even if they suspect film history is about to be made and Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton are about to take the stage.

So, in the real world, the show certainly averaged fewer than 39.9 million people. But not enough to put it in any danger of being eclipsed by the second-most-watched entertainment broadcast of this season to date, the "American Idol" season debut on Jan. 16, which clocked 37.4 million viewers.

The "Idol" debut, however, did eclipse the Oscar-cast among younger viewers, even when you whack off the bits of the trophy show that ran in the wee hours of Monday morning.

According to Nielsen and ABC, Sunday's ceremony show averaged about 1 million more viewers than last year's Academy Awards program.

And while you and I might think the show seemed interminable, in ABC and Nielsen's accounting, it came in only about a minute longer than last year's, at 3 hours 29 minutes.

Its real running length was closer to four hours, which makes it one of the longer Academy Awards shows, but not the longest.

In Nielsen's reality, the longest Oscar-cast was 2002's, which ran from 8:30 p.m. to 12:34 a.m. Coincidentally, that year, like this, the trophy show was produced by Laura Ziskin, leading to a certain amount of discussion yesterday as to what the heck ABC and the motion picture academy were thinking when they brought her back.

But 2002 may not in fact be the longest Oscar-cast ever, as some have suggested. If that show ended at 12:34 a.m. it would be shorter than the 2000 broadcast, which Nielsen lists as running from 8:30 p.m. to 12:18 a.m. but which, in real life, ran until 12:41 a.m.

Besides, by ABC and Nielsen's reckoning, the audience for this year's show was up compared with last year, and among 18-to-34-year-olds it was the highest rated in five years -- since Ziskin's 2002 telecast.

Which means ABC is probably pleased with the show.

And with Ziskin.

* * *

Fox is sticking by "American Idol" contestant and Catholic University student Antonella Barba for now, in spite of photos purporting to show her in various states of undress and engaged in various activities, photos that have been zipping around the Internet faster than you can say, "If you let the guy record your sex act on his camera, it's probably going to wind up on the Web."

Actually, all Fox would say yesterday on the subject is, "We don't comment on the personal lives of our show participants."

Which, of course, is hooey because Fox said stuff in 2003, for instance, when it booted Howard University student Frenchie Davis from the competition for taking work posing as a little girl on a porn Web site that catered to men who liked the idea of sex with little girls, even though she said she did it to earn college tuition money.

Fox said Frenchie was outta there, for instance.

But in this case, it appears that if the snaps are in fact of Barba, she has committed no crime, and there is no evidence she was paid to tug at her soaking-wet white T-shirt and black thong while cavorting in what appears to be the World War II Memorial on the Mall at night.

"Idol" producer Nigel Lythgoe has been quoted in the celebrity mag Entertainment Weekly saying he thinks it's sad that friends put friends' naughty snaps on the Web. We think so, too, don't you?

We called Catholic University to see if they thought it was sad.

Spokesman Victor Nakas said that as far as the photos go, they don't know any more than is out on the Web and in the media, including whether some or all of them are actually of Barba.

"That said, we have to be careful to distinguish between two sets of photos," he continued.

"The first set of photos appear to show childish behavior on the part of some teenaged girls."

He's referring to photos of young women, who may include Barba, sunbathing topless and covering their breasts with their hands, standing in a conga line, each chick covering the breasts of the girl in front of her, chicks using the loo, chicks doing bump-and-grind dancing with each other, etc. Think "Girls Gone Wild" Lite.

"They're not the most flattering but not the most earthshaking in their significance," Nakas told The TV Column.

"The second set of pictures, the ones that are more explicit -- and I want to underscore that it has not been proved those are actually of Ms. Barba, the ones that are purported to be of her -- are sad and unfortunate regardless of the person being depicted," he added.

Here he's speaking about the photos in which someone is performing sex acts on a guy who apparently came prepared with a camera.

"We're saddened for Ms. Barba and her family and friends in these circumstances that have turned an exciting opportunity into an embarrassing moment in their lives."

The 20-year-old junior, in the school of architecture and planning, is still scheduled to perform tomorrow night on "American Idol" with the other remaining female performers, despite her painful performance of "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing."

Nakas, meanwhile, wouldn't discuss what's in store for Barba at school other than to say Catholic University "evaluates every student's conduct in accordance with its student handbook and if university officials were to conclude there was sufficient evidence, hypothetically, that a student has violated the code of conduct, then a judicial proceeding would be initiated against them within our campus community."