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Oscars ratings up after last year's all-time low

February 23, 2009 |  8:25 am

A roaring comeback it was not. But at least Sunday’s Oscars stemmed the viewer flight of recent years and managed better in the ratings than last year’s all-time low.

An average of 36.3 million total viewers watched ABC’s 81st Annual Academy Awards with first-time host Hugh Jackman, according to early figures from Nielsen Media Research (final numbers will not arrive until Tuesday). That was up 13% compared with last year’s ill-fated telecast with emcee Jon Stewart, which came just days after the resolution of the three-month writers strike.

The network estimated that overall, 67.6 million viewers caught at least six minutes of Sunday’s ceremony. ABC pointed out that this year’s show -– which drew divergent mixed reviews for its giddy song-and-dance numbers and attempted throwbacks to Depression-era studio glamour -– was the top-rated entertainment telecast so far this season, beating last month’s Season 8 premiere of Fox’s “American Idol” (30.4 million). A network spokeswoman said Monday that executives were not available to comment on the ratings.

The ratings held up surprisingly well considering that, as was the case last year, the crop of best-picture nominees mainly consisted of so-called “specialty films” unfamiliar to most viewers. That hit films tend to draw big TV crowds for the Academy Awards is well established. The most-watched Oscars in recent years came in 1998, when 55.2 million saw “Titanic,” the highest-grossing movie of all time, grab best picture.

This year, “Slumdog Millionaire,” the melodrama set in the Mumbai ghetto that took home eight awards, including best picture, had no major stars and was released by Fox Searchlight, a specialty-film division. Some fans of the smash hit “The Dark Knight” had vowed to boycott the Oscar telecast due to that film’s snub in the best-picture category, but whether such a threat actually affected viewing levels is impossible to tell.

But even if the ratings were somewhat better than expected, they are not exactly cause for high fives among Oscar organizers. Sunday’s show was still the third-least-watched in the past 20 years, exceeding only last year’s airing (32 million) and the 2003 telecast marred by the runup to the Iraq war (33 million). And the show continues to lose ground with younger viewers; Sunday’s 12.1 rating among adults ages 18-49 was the second lowest in at least 20 years, beating only last year’s 10.7.

Meanwhile, “Jimmy Kimmel Live: After the Academy Awards,” the late-night host’s fourth annual post-Oscar special, drew 4.3 million viewers, up 16% from last year.

-- Scott Collins

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