The 2022 Oscars attracted an average audience of 15.4 million viewers to ABC on Sunday, bouncing back by more than 50 percent from last year’s record-low COVID-restricted telecast but still earning nowhere near the Nielsen numbers it had been pulling as recently as 2020.
Delayed until April and relocated to a smaller and much less Los Angeles location (a train station), the 2021 Academy Awards collapsed to a once unthinkable viewership of barely 10 million viewers — less than half the 23.6 million who had watched a year earlier. Because of the anomalies associated with the 2021 telecast, industry insiders considered it highly unlikely Sunday’s show would suffer further declines and believed a double-digit percentage increase was almost certain. But a gain of 5 million viewers was hardly inevitable, particularly since some music-awards shows held last fall barely improved on their COVID lows. At the very least, seeing the Oscars audience back above 15 million viewers is probably enough to forestall any panic attacks among ABC and Academy suits, particularly given all the negative preshow publicity over their decision to present eight craft categories before the ceremony broadcast.
While ABC dodged the nightmare scenario of flat or reduced ratings, it’s premature to declare the Oscars’ extreme makeover an unqualified success. Sunday’s show drew a smaller audience than Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last year, which notched 17 million viewers on CBS. And the 2022 Oscars lost roughly one-third the audience of the 2020 show, which until last year had been the least-watched Oscars on record. Indeed, as recently as 2017, the Academy Awards were bringing in well over 32 million viewers each year. Getting to half that level is hardly reason to declare all of ABC’s Oscars problems solved: The Disney-owned company is still paying the Academy roughly $100 million each year for rights to the show, per multiple reports. It’s hard to imagine anyone at the network expected that when, back in 2016, the current rights package was extended until 2028.
Still, it would be a mistake to assume there’s much either ABC or the Academy can do to get the show’s ratings anywhere near past levels. Broadcast and cable viewership has fallen across the board decade as audiences move to on-demand options such as Netflix and Hulu. Save for live sporting events and Fox News prime time, Nielsen numbers for most titles are down 30 to 50 percent from five years ago. Live events such the Oscars are not proving to be any less resistant to those trends than other kinds of shows.
It is not clear yet whether any effort to “fix” the Oscars telecast can really make a difference. That said, those inside Disney-ABC and the Academy who pressed for the radical changes seen this year will likely cite the solid percentage growth as evidence their approach worked. They’ll surely note that the 2022 telecast saw a particularly strong lift among adults under 50, with this year’s show generating a preliminary 3.2 demo rating, up 68 percent. That could be a hint that younger viewers liked some of the changes made by first-time executive producer Will Packer — or it could just be that the youths wanted to see Beyoncé and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” It’s also possible this year’s show might have gotten a tiny bump from Will Smith’s sucker slap of Chris Rock during the final hour of the telecast — not because of non-viewers suddenly rushing to find a TV set but because of folks who otherwise might’ve headed to bed choosing to stick around to see whether Smith’s attack would be addressed on air.
Bottom line: Whatever was behind the gains, it would be a mistake to read too much into this year’s numbers compared to the anomalous 2021. That probably won’t stop a lot of people from trying to draw conclusions anyway.