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'Avatar' could lift Oscar ratings, but there is the Leonardo DiCaprio factor and ABC's feud with Cablevision to consider

March 5, 2010 | 10:47 am


While everyone puts the finishing touches on their Oscar pools, it seems appropriate to take a look at the ratings of the show over the last few years and see if we can get any hints on how Sunday's telecast will perform.

Awards shows have been on the rise as of late, with the Grammys, Emmys and Golden Globes all making ratings gains. ABC's Oscars broadcast should easily beat last year's numbers, but if it doesn't top 40 million viewers, it seems safe to say the word "disappointment."

Last year's Oscars, which saw "Slum Dog Millionaire" take home the top prize, was seen by 36.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Though that's not a spectacular number, it was actually an improvement on the 2008 show, which drew just 32 million viewers ("No Country for Old Men" was the best picture winner) and was the least-watched Oscars show ever, according to the information Nielsen has. However, Nielsen does not have viewer information for the Oscars before 1974, so who knows, maybe there was a smaller audience for the year "Midnight Cowboy" won. The second least-watched Oscars was 2003, when "Chicago" won best picture.

Because this year's broadcast has an expanded best picture category and the hugely successful "Avatar" is in the running, many are expecting a big audience. If history is a guide, there may be reason for such optimism. The last time a James Cameron movie was in the Oscar running was 1997 with "Titanic," and that telecast had a record audience of 55.2 million viewers. If you're curious, the previous record was in 1983, when 53.2 million watched "Ghandi" win. 

But although "Avatar" is a hit, that alone might not be enough to bring a big audience. There is the Leonardo DiCaprio factor. He starred in "Titanic," but "Avatar" does not have any superstars in it. And yes, "Titanic" helped cement DiCaprio's status as a superstar, but it does not seem like "Avatar" is going to have the same effect on its cast. The year "The Departed" (another DiCaprio movie) won best picture, 40.2 million people tuned in.

Then there are the hosts. Hosts probably can't boost a show's ratings so much as hurt them. Although Steve Martin is at national-treasure status, there are probably as many people who loathe Alec Baldwin as there are who love him. Well, as long as his daughter doesn't call 911 during the program, hopefully everything will be OK.

There is one other factor to consider, and it's a big one. ABC is threatening to pull the signal for its New York City television station, WABC, from Cablevision on Sunday. Cablevision serves 3.1 million homes in that region. If ABC follows through on that threat and the Oscars are not available to Cablevision subscribers, that could depress the ratings.

We'll see who blinks.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: A Kodak Theatre security guard stands watch over Oscar. Credit: Amy Sancetta / Associated Press