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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Oscar shocker: The ratings are up!

February 23, 2009 | 12:37 pm

JackmanWe're still waiting for the final numbers, but my paper is reporting that the Academy Awards' ratings were up perhaps as much as 6% over last year, which had set a record low for Oscar ratings. The show is likely to remain one of the three least-watched Oscars of all time, but still--how did such a lackluster show get any kind of ratings bounce at all?

Theory No. 1: The critics were wrong. It wasn't such a bad show. Like most reviewers and pundits who watched the awards--including this assessment from our own wonderfully sharp-tongued TV critic, Mary McNamara--I thought the show had no pacing, too many wrong-headed ideas (like having aging Oscar winners tell us why they liked the work of the current nominees instead of just showing us their performances) and, most crucially, a host in Hugh Jackman who thought he was back on Broadway, doing "42nd Street," delivering not one but two excruciatingly bad musical numbers. As you can see from our Comments section, most of my readers disagree--they liked the show. Maybe they're more in touch with the average TV viewer than I am. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that's happened.

Theory No. 2: TV ratings have a lot more to do with expectations than execution. In other words, for people to block out time to watch a three-hour telecast, they have to be eager to see what's going to happen. Since the Oscars deliver plenty of star power every year, the key difference, year to year, is the lineup of movies, particularly the year's leading contender. This year's winner--and obvious front-runner going back to the holidays--"Slumdog Millionaire" was something special: It was the most upbeat, crowd-pleasingly popular best picture winner since "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" swept to victory in 2004. "Slumdog" gave viewers something unabashedly soulful and stirring, especially compared to the winners of recent vintage, which were largely downbeat, often extremely violent films that hardly spurred any serious rooting interest. For all its artistry, you could hardly imagine anyone perched on the living room couch, going "Come on, 'No Country for Old Men'!"

Theory No. 3: Moviegoing is way, way up this year, riding a wave of popular affection for films that we haven't seen in years. If more people are going to the movies, then maybe its possible that more people were eager to see a big, celebrity-studded show about movie making. Everyone simply had more skin in the game this year.

Theory No. 4: Hugh Jackman must've been right: I guess "Mamma Mia!" has brought back the musical for good. Maybe next year the Oscars will let Nathan Lane be the host, since he's not only funny but can dance too.

Photo of Hugh Jackman on Oscar night at the Kodak Theatre by Brett Ratner / ABC

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