Previewing The Oscars

Forget who's going to win on Sunday night. Who's going to watch?

Viewers have been deserting the Academy Awards telecasts for ages — at least from the show's heyday in the 1950s, when there were only three TV networks. In 1954, 82 percent of all American TVs were tuned to the Oscars.

In a more fragmented cable-station world, last year's show was seen by just 23 percent of the nation's TV audience — Oscar's lowest viewership ever. (That percentage represents about 32 million people, about the same number who'd seen that year's best picture nominees.)

Now, Oscar's audience is overwhelmingly women — it's known in the advertising trade as the "distaff Super Bowl" — so having certified Hollywood hunk Hugh Jackman as emcee may help boost viewership. (Though he didn't do much for Australia).

Still, there's no chance that the telecast will match the roughly 40 million viewers it earned two years ago, and that was well short of the high-water mark. In fact, the combined domestic attendance for all the Best Picture nominees this year hasn't even hit 40 million yet.

And while the Oscar telecast's producers have lots of plans, what they can't do is the one thing most observers think the might improve the show's ratings: a horse-race the audience feels invested in, the way 55 million viewers did in 1998, when Titanic was nominated.

This year, the Academy wouldn't have had to sell its soul to create a similar situation. Replace The Reader and Frost/Nixon (the least likely and least well-received of the Best Picture nominees) with The Dark Knight and Wall-E (both among the year's best-reviewed films), and the number of potential TV viewers who'd seen at least one of the principal nominees would quadruple.

Quadruple.

Just a thought.

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