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Commentary: Oscar broadcast ratings are overrated

By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times –

It’s that most wonderful time of year, Oscar season, when all the film writers spend their time dissecting or championing the various nominees while the TV reporters reach for grim boilerplate bemoaning the telecast’s ratings. Which, despite the obvious if not best efforts of the show’s various producers (did anyone really think Anne Hathaway and James Franco were a good idea?), keep sliding.

Last year 37.6 million people watched the show, an increase from some recent years (32 million in 2008, 36.3 in 2009) but down from the previous year (41.3) and certainly from the gold standard of 1998 (the year of “Titanic”) when 57 million tuned in … boilerplate, boilerplate, blah, blah, blah.

Here’s the thing. 37.6 million is a big number. Not Super Bowl big, of course, but until you move the Oscars to Sunday afternoon, get a bunch of big guys to promise to hit one another a lot during the telecast and convince supermarkets to design junk-food displays evoking the various contenders, the Oscars are never going to get Super Bowl numbers.

Nor are they going to get presidential debate numbers, royal wedding numbers or funeral of pope numbers.

After all, the Oscars are an annual event broadcast on only one channel, and they are scripted and, to a certain extent, predictable. Famous people will win awards and deliver short speeches, most of which are simply lists of names of other (slightly less) famous people.

Billy Crystal will, one hopes, bring a better sense of showmanship to the proceedings this year, though it’s difficult to believe he will attract that elusive youth-demo (especially since the academy so absurdly snubbed the Harry Potter franchise).

But even if the numbers jump a little, or a lot, it doesn’t change the basic fact that the audience for the Oscar telecast is shrinking.

You get old, you shrink, Anatomy 101.

And why not? Why should the Oscars be any different from the movie industry, the recording industry, the publishing industry, print media or “American Idol”? Everyone’s audience is shrinking. “The Big Bang Theory” tops today’s charts with 16 million viewers, which is great compared with other comedies (“30 Rock” is down to 3.2 million) until you consider that “Seinfeld” typically drew in 20 million and “Friends” pulled in almost 25 million at its height.

“CSI” is down to almost half its biggest audience, Jay Leno and David Letterman are both declining, daytime dramas are all but extinct. Oprah Winfrey started her own network and hardly anyone cares. The “Lost” season finale, one of the most talked-about TV events in recent history, managed only 13 million viewers, 10 million less than its Season 2 premiere and not even close to the finales of other big shows of years past. Almost 12 million watched “The Sopranos” finale three years previously, and that was on HBO!

Like so many other industries, television has to work to drag eyes away from all the Twitter feeds and YouTube hits, but unlike any other industry, TV’s biggest enemy may be itself. There are just a lot of very good (and very bad but still tantalizingly watchable) shows to watch and an infinite number of ways to watch them. The old equations of popularity and success simply don’t apply anymore.

Indeed, small may be the new big; certainly that’s what Oscar and Emmy have been saying for years now, awarding films and shows with minuscule audiences; it seems only right that their form would follow their function. And ratings may be an outdated way of judging social impact. On TV, a tiny audience can have a large cultural footprint.

NBC’s “30 Rock” may actually have more Emmys than viewers, but that doesn’t keep Tina Fey or Alec Baldwin off the cover of magazines. “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner was so confident of his show, which rarely broke 3 million, that he delayed production for almost a year instead of shaving his budget.

Whether through merchandise deals, blog posts, avatars or apps, these small but mighty shows hold our attention in ways that didn’t exist when Nielsen started peddling its ratings system.

So stop stressing already. More people will watch the Oscars than watch “Mad Men.” Like 12 times more. More people will watch the Oscars than watched the finales of “Lost” and “The Sopranos” combined (though probably not more than the 55 million who watched the “Friends” finale, but you can still dream).

Certainly stop trying to chase down viewers, especially the young ‘uns, with tweaks tailored to some social analyst’s suppositions or, worse yet, some middle-aged producer’s idea of what the kids want. The kids don’t know what they want! They never have! They’re either going to think it’s kind of retro and cool to watch the Oscars, if only to tweet their utter disgust at all the designer excess, cosmetic surgery mistakes and autumnal narcissism, or they won’t.

No one ever created a hit while keeping one eye on a pie chart. So relax already and just put on a good show, the best show you can. No one really expects a three-hour awards ceremony to be much more than it is; viewers mainly want to avoid unnecessary pain.

Funny is good, reverence more difficult, musical numbers very hit and miss, but confidence almost always carries the day. Billy Crystal will certainly help with that. You’re the Oscars, for goodness sake, and 84 is officially old enough to just do whatever the heck you want.

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