Fewer people watched the Academy Awards on Sunday night than at any time in the modern era, according to final numbers from Nielsen, with the audience plummeting 56 percent from a record-low total in 2020 to land at just 10.4 million.
But the Oscar results offered a sobering message beyond the pandemic.
Nielsen reported a small 2.1 rating among adults 18-49, the demographic that advertisers covet — a steep and worrisome dive for the Disney-owned ABC, which has a contract to air the awards through 2028. Just two years ago, the show brought in a 7.7 rating in the demographic.
The viewership drop among 18- to 49-year-olds, which also marks a 60 percent decline from last year, potentially diminishes what ABC can charge for ads in future years. Meanwhile, the overall plunge in viewership could limit the number of people who will then go on to pay to watch a company’s film because they saw it on the show, an established trend. Last year’s big winner, “Parasite,” saw box office increase by 50 percent after the telecast.
(Some numbers, at least, suggest that even with the low ratings the movies did receive a sales bump.)
Even before covid, Oscar ratings had been in free-fall. Viewership during the 2010s plummeted to barely half of what it had been at the start of the decade. The show in 2010 had garnered 42 million viewers, but by 2020 only 24 million Americans were tuning in.
The drops pose the question of whether the Oscars can bring Americans together over a shared love of movies — as it has for many years as the second-most-watched live TV event after the Super Bowl — or a niche event that celebrates an industry and satisfies fans but is not a unifying force in pop culture.
Observers fear the 2021 slip is not a one-off consequence of covid but part of a larger trend, as a fractured marketplace, polarized culture and new generation more indifferent to movie stars makes it increasingly difficult to unite a large audience at a single show. The few movies that are widely popular in a given year tend to be action-adventure blockbusters not generally regarded as Oscar contenders.
Sunday night’s best picture winner, “Nomadland,” is the story of an older worker’s journey from one temporary job to another as she lives in her van, and the people she meets along the way. The film’s director, Chloé Zhao, won the directing award, while its lead actor, Frances McDormand, won best actress.
Facing the likely ratings plunge, the Oscars this year made a large number of switches. A trio of producers that included the filmmaker Steven Soderbergh changed up the order of the awards announcements; went for a more informal supper-club vibe at its train station locale; and had the presenters spend more time discussing the process of moviemaking in favor of the usual glitz. It is unclear whether a more traditional show would have helped the ratings.
Despite fears about low numbers coming into the telecast, a wide range of advertisers, including Google, General Motors and Adidas, still paid an estimated $2 million for a 30-second spot on the show, in keeping with rates five years ago, when total viewership was 34 million. ABC said last week that it had sold all the available ad slots for the show, though four of those advertisers were Disney properties. That should put ad revenue well above $100 million, making the show profitable for ABC.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which oversees the Oscars, derives a significant portion of its revenue from the telecast. ABC pays the academy an estimated $75 million annually for broadcast rights.
That the deal is in place through 2028 gives the academy some financial cushion. But it raises the possibility of a major shuffle after that time, with the show moving to another network or a streaming platform, or even being redone entirely.
The biggest losers from Sunday night’s drop could be advertisers, since ABC generally does not offer ratings guarantees to its sponsors, who now must contend with reaching a smaller-than-expected audience. And studios hoping for free publicity for their winners must now find other ways to reach a wide audience.