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James Franco and Anne Hathaway are on ratings hot seat for Sunday's Academy Awards

February 24, 2011 |  5:44 pm

HathawayfrancoUSE When they take the stage at the Kodak Theatre Sunday, Anne Hathaway and James Franco will be the youngest Oscar co-hosts in the telecast's history, as well as the first coed hosts since 1987.

So, will they deliver big ratings for ABC?

Early signs look encouraging. As Nielsen Co. put it in a pre-Oscar report: "Viewership for other major award shows in 2011 has increased from previous years, which might give a boost to this year’s Oscar telecast. Last year, with a shoot-out between 'Avatar' and 'The Hurt Locker,' the Academy Awards captured an audience of 41.7 million viewers –- the largest in five years." 

Indeed, the Golden Globes -- often considered a precursor to the Oscars and a rough gauge of viewer interest in that year's movie awards crop -- drew 17 million viewers on NBC last month, the show's highest audience since 2007.

Then again, no matter how Hathaway and Franco do, the Oscars ratings are famously nominee-dependent. The show yields the best ratings when big hits are among the best picture contenders. That could pose some challenges this year; the nominees include $100-million-plus-grossing pictures such as "The King's Speech" and "Black Swan" but no box-office gorilla like "Avatar."

The challenge for the hosts will be to keep the show spontaneous and brisk so that viewers will stay tuned in for what is inevitably a long haul. The good news for ABC is that in a DVR and DVD age when viewers can watch competing programming later, they have more incentive to tune in for live events. The hosts also have youth on their side: They're popular among viewers in the 18 to 49 demographic, whose Oscar viewership has been wobbly in recent years.

"The increased viewership for awards shows coincides with the recent trend toward larger audiences for live events,” said Pat McDonough, Nielsen senior vice president. “Watching live events, such as an award show or sporting event, allows the viewer to feel closer to the action and generates a greater appeal to watch."

-- Scott Collins (Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT)

Photo: James Franco and Anne Hathaway will host the 83rd Academy Awards. Credit: Bob D'Amico / ABC