Early ratings figures for the 2014 Oscar telecast averaged a 27.9 Nielsen household rating/41 share, with slightly over 40 million viewers. This is up seven percent from 2013. While some might consider this a win since it is the highest rating since 2005, they forget that ratings since 2005 have been terribly low. Why? Because few massively appealing blockbusters have been nominated since 2005, and those that have were not favored to win. This reduced audience interest in the Oscars telecast.
It's rather obvious that more people tend to watch the Oscar telecast when movies they love are in hot contention for Best Picture. The high watermark was in 1998 when the film Titanic, making over $600 million domestically, was favored to win. 55.2 million people tuned in to watch their beloved film take home an Oscar and they were not disappointed. Another notable win was Forrest Gump which made $329 million domestically and brought in 48.3 million viewers to the Oscar telecast. Contrast that with the Crash, the Best Picture winner in 2006 which made only about $54 million domestically and had one of the lowest Oscar telecast viewerships on record at 38.9 million people or No Country For Old Men in 2008 which made only $74 million domestically and captured a measly 32 million viewers for the Oscar telecast.
If more blockbusters were in contention for Best Picture, it would not be a stretch to imagine a 10 to 20 percent increase in ratings. That would equate to millions of dollars for ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which charges ABC for the rights to broadcast the event.
So here we are again. The Best Picture category had only one bonafide blockbuster, the film Gravity with $270 million domestic gross. But the win went to 12 Years a Slave, a film that made only $50 million domestically. Ironically, Gravity won seven Oscars, one apiece for best directing, cinematography, film editing, original score, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects. 12 Years a Slave won only for adapted screenplay and actress in a supporting role, yet somehow that allowed it to win Best Picture, overcoming the more widespread excellence that Gravity achieved. Go figure.
So many small films have won in recent years, that those who loved Gravity were not apt to tune in, nor did millions of others whose favorite films were not even nominated for Best Picture. If the number one blockbuster of the year, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, had been nominated for Best Picture, more teen girls would undoubtedly have watched. A Best Picture nomination for Frozen would likely have brought in more families with smaller children. Blockbuster films like Iron Man 3 and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug would have brought in more young males.
The Academy does its best to increase ratings for the show, most notably by creating hype around the nominations, the show's director, the host (I loved Ellen), and the entertainment. These are all factors in the ratings. But they can only help so much. Those efforts do not address one of the most important root issues; that the mass popularity of the films favored to win Best Picture often generates mass viewership of the telecast. The Academy did expand the number of Best Picture nominations several years ago in hopes of getting more blockbusters nominated, but that has not really worked out. Most members still vote for smaller films with less mass appeal, and most of those smaller films are often favored to win, which diminishes interest in the telecast.
This could be averted if the Academy used a little more critical thinking as I outlined in an earlier blog. That is to create a new voter category to the Oscars called Best Blockbuster. The category would be comprised of the top 10 films as measured by worldwide box office receipts. The Academy voters can select their favorite from within that list, thus insuring that they consider blockbusters that they might have otherwise overlooked. Importantly, creating sufficient promotional hype around a new Best Blockbuster category would hopefully expand audience size by enticing more age and gender segments, raise ABC's revenue, bring in more money to the Academy, and most importantly, be a lot more fun for millions of viewers.