Maybe it’s time to bring back the host: Sunday night’s 92nd annual Academy Awards was seen in 13.6 percent of TV homes and drew just 23.6 million viewers on ABC, easily making it the least-watched Oscars ever. Viewership for the 2020 ceremony fell around 20 percent over last year’s show (29.6 million), with the decline particularly pronounced among younger audiences. Per Nielsen, Sunday’s ceremony averaged a 5.3 rating among adult viewers under 50, down more than 30 percent from 2018’s show (7.7 rating). And while the Oscars still reached more viewers than any other entertainment special in the past year, CBS’s broadcast last month of the Grammys actually did better in that key under-50 demo, drawing a 5.4 rating — the first time that has happened since 2012, when the death of Whitney Houston sent ratings for the music kudos skyrocketing.
The ratings collapse comes after last year’s ceremony managed to defy the Nielsen gravity, growing about 10 percent over 2018, which, until now, had been the least-watched show in Oscars history (with 26.5 million viewers). The 2019 event was helped by its relatively short run time, wrapping up after about three hours and 17 minutes — the briefest Oscarcast since 2012. Historically, audience levels for Oscar shows fall off the longer the show goes on, thanks to East Coast audiences simply heading to bed.
Sunday’s show didn’t run that much longer: It wrapped up just after 11:30 p.m., clocking about 13 more minutes than in 2019. While that may have hurt ratings around the margins, a 20 percent year-to-year decline can’t be blamed on a few too many bits or long speeches. The biggest culprit is out of the control of ABC and the Academy: Oscar ratings have generally been in free fall in recent years because just about everything on linear TV is losing viewers quickly. Younger audiences in particular have gotten out of the habit of watching TV in real time, save for sports. Despite the slight rebound last year, it’s worth noting that 2019’s ceremony still finished below 30 million viewers. Until 2018, that had never happened, and as recently as 2014, the Oscars was regularly pulling in over 35 million viewers, with audiences over 40 million not uncommon. The 2019 show may also have benefited from curiosity over what a host-free ceremony might look like as well as a slightly more populist collection of Best Picture nominees. Blockbusters such as Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star Is Born collectively grossed nearly $1.3 billion in domestic box office; the number for this year’s nominees was $747 million, per Comscore.
There can be no doubt that these really bad ratings will prompt another wave of introspection at ABC and at the Academy over how to fix the Oscars. But it’s still worth noting that, even with the recent history of ratings declines, ABC was still able to command as much as $2.8 million for a 30-second ad during this year’s show and will likely gross well over $100 million in ad sales for the evening.