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The fates aligned for the Academy Awards this year. The annual event was facing global controversy due to a perceived whitewashing of its nominations. But the Academy was lucky enough to book Chris Rock as its host for the 88th annual telecast, assuring that people would tune in to hear how the blisteringly funny comedian would rake the film industry over the coals.

Only, fewer people tuned in to the Oscars than expected, and the show posted its lowest number in years. As reported by Variety, the Oscar telecast "averaged a still-big 23.4 household rating/36 share from 8:30 to midnight ET, down 6% from last year’s 25.0/38 and 16% below the 10-year high of 27.9/41 from two years ago. The previous low-water mark in the overnights came in 2008 when the Jon Stewart-hosted Oscars delivered a 21.9/33. That show ended up averaging 32 million viewers, which is the smallest on record, according to Nielsen."

Not good company to keep. So, what happened? Leonardo DiCaprio had backing, and we assumed people really wanted to hear Chris Rock’s opinions on #OscarsSoWhite. Here are some theories about why the Oscars pulled a record-low rating in the overnights:

Race Controversy
The call for a boycott worked
Shortly after the nominations were unveiled, some celebrities – the loudest being Jada Pinkett Smith – called for a boycott of the Oscars. That never really materialized IRL, but it could have translated into more people choosing to watch something else on Sunday night. People who might have been disappointed by the Academy’s lack of diversity didn’t need to hit the streets in protest. But a very simple way to send a message that you were upset by the lack of diversity in the Oscar acting categories would be to change the channel, and not give the Academy your viewership number. That appears to have happened on Sunday night.
Image Credit: ABC/Adam Taylor
The Movies
The nominated movies didn’t have huge fan bases
During a goosebump-inducing montage that opened the show, clips from crowd-pleasing movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World got people in the seats (and likely at home) cheering. Only, where were those movies as the night went on? Instead of celebrating the movies that audiences flocked to – movies like Furious 7 and Star Wars -- the Academy chose to honor excellent films that failed to draw flies at the box office. Spotlight, which won Best Picture, has a domestic gross of $39 million. Room grossed $5.2 million, and Brooklyn pulled in $22.7M. The Martian was the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee, but fans of that movie endured a lengthy ceremony to watch their favorite film go home empty-handed. These ratings suggest that we are an MTV Movies nation, and we don’t really want to watch a bloated ceremony celebrating movies mainstream audiences aren’t interested in.
Chris Rock
Chris Rock wasn’t a draw
I wonder what the ratings were for the first 15 minutes of the show? Is it possible that most people tuned in just to hear Rock’s monologue, then bailed? Or was Rock just not the draw that people (myself included) assumed that he would be for the ceremony? It’s interesting, in the Variety piece, that Jon Stewart – another East Coast comedian – presided over the last lowest-rated Oscars ceremony. Finding the right host continues to be an issue that vexes the Academy. Ellen DeGeneres appears to be beloved, and Billy Crystal was an all-timer in the role. But when Oscar has to think outside the box, television audiences tend not to respond. Right, Anne Hathaway and James Franco?
Awards Show Fatigue
Awards-show fatigue killed the Oscars
This is my bet. By the time the Oscars roll around, those who care about such awards pageantry have already endured the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Indie Spirit Awards, etc. They have heard the jokes made by famously funny hosts, and they have heard the beats of each acceptance speech. The novelty of seeing Kate Winslet in tears as Leo accepts his trophy has worn off. The Oscars, in general, are struggling to maintain their relevance with the mainstream culture, and another year of slipping ratings suggest a downward trend that’s not easily corrected.
Image Credit: ABC/Adam Taylor
Why do you think the Oscar ratings were down?
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