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The 93rd Oscars as the First Academy Awards of the Pandemic — How Many Will Watch?

Many top events have suffered large ratings drains since the start of the pandemic. But will the Oscars be among them? Those in the media offer their take on the ratings of the world's most prestigious awards ceremony.

The Academy Awards will finally arrive this Sunday April 25th, the latest the ceremony has taken place within an awards season.

These awards will celebrate the calendar year of 2020 in film yet that period has been a tumultuous one. It has been 14 months since the last Oscars have taken place and during that time, the COVID-19 global pandemic has upended our way of life. The movie industry was sent into flux. Theaters were largely left vacant. It was only this current spring season that the amount of attendees were increasing but it is doing so at a gradual pace.

Normal plans for a Hollywood awards season had to be altered. The Academy extended the end date of the cinematic eligibility period from Dec. 31, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021. They also amended its criteria for films originally intended for theatrical release but instead wound up appearing on streaming services and on demand platforms — a move that became a frequent trend by the studios during the past year. Most notably, Warner Bros. slated “Wonder Woman 1984” on Christmas Day as well as their entire 2021 film schedule to simultaneously premiere in theaters and on the nascent HBO Max. Amazon became the home two features previously purposed for theatrical release that had massive box office potential: “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and “Coming 2 America.”

Netflix has greatly impacted the state of television and, in recent years, the movie business as well. The company, an obvious thorn in the side of movie theaters, has quickly ascended to elite status. For this year’s Oscars, it leads all distributors with 35 nominations; its film “Mank” — the David Fincher-directed black-and-white chronicle of the making of “Citizen Kane” — was the most recognized film with ten nominations.

The aforementioned Amazon was a distant second with 12 nods. And, Disney-owned streamers Hulu and Disney Plus are projected to take home at least three major Academy Awards: award season favorites “Nomadland” for Best Picture, “Soul” for Best Animated Feature and “The United States vs. Billie Holliday” lead star Andra Day for Best Actress.

The Oscars are meant to be a celebration of Hollywood. But as evidenced by recent award shows, the viewing public is not ready to celebrate. Back in Feb. 2020, there was lament in the entertainment industry that the Oscars had achieved an all-time low of 23.6 million viewers. That figure, at present, looks impressive given the current landscape. The Golden Globes in late February and the Grammys in mid-March each experienced steep ratings drops from last year — albeit, their 2020 events were pre-pandemic — and both sunk to record lows. Although the Oscars are the granddaddy of award shows, they too are likely not immune from ratings woes.

There are several quality films from 2020 worthy of being honored like “Promising Young Woman”, “Nomadland”, “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “Mank”, yet this group of nominees might be the least appealing in recent memory. Without theatrical releases nor box office returns for nearly all those nominated (especially for those Netflix-associated fare), it’s unclear how to gauge the interest level of any of these nominations. But if the aforementioned recent Golden Globes are any indication — its ceremony was down a whopping 61 percent in viewership from January 2020 — there probably is not much.

The event’s producers are purposefully making the Oscars an in-person ceremony, avoiding the Zoom-video format from the Globes. Musical performances will still take place at the Dolby Theatre, the regular home of the Academy Awards. But this year’s main ceremony will be held at Los Angeles’ transit hub Union Station. For nominees in the United Kingdom, they can attend an undisclosed venue in London. England in order to accept their awards, if they win. Such attempts at creating an engaging live telecast production should be applauded. However, it may not be enough to stem the tide of lackluster live event viewership. The Oscars air on ABC, part of the linear TV medium where its viewing has eroded significantly year-to-year especially among young adults, the demographic all networks try to court in order to rake in the big advertising dollars. All signs point to 13.1 million viewers for the 2021 Academy Awards, a 45 percent drop from last year.

Various professionals in the media industry provided their ratings prognostications for the upcoming Academy Awards, upon request. Here are their takes:

Marc Berman, Editor-in-Chief of Programming Insider

11.21 million. Given the absence of movie theaters and the caliber of low profile movies, I imagine the Oscars will follow the same pattern of sharp declines for other awards shows this year.

Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR

20 million viewers. People are watching awards shows less, but TV and media outlets have been talking about these films for a long time. I’m thinking some people will want to know how it all turns out. Erosion, but not falling off a cliff like other awards shows.

Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch

Airing two months out of date + movie theaters largely closed + industry-wide decline in ratings = severe decline and all-time record low. I’ll go with 15.0M viewers (not too bad by the current standards of live TV).

Rich Greenfield, Media and Technology Analyst at LightShed Partners

11 million. Not only were far fewer films released last year, but COVID restrictions will meaningfully reduce the pageantry that makes the Oscars a spectacle unlike any other awards show.

Bill Brioux, Brioux.TV

Under 10 million viewers. A year of empty cinemas and, as Bill Maher pointed out, a very downer list of nominees = nobody cares.

Phillip Swann, TV Answer Man

17 million. People are sick to death of Covid and the prospect of watching a Covid-dominated Academy Awards will send viewers fleeing to the closest streaming service. Plus, the nominated films are so cheerless that they could push an already depressed nation over the edge.

Scott Nolte, Northwest Iowa Y100.1 FM (KUYY) deejay-sports announcer

12.4 million.  This follow suit on previous awards shows with a decline in viewership because people are still dealing with the pandemic with other things to focus on.

Jason Jacobs, Northwest Iowa Campus Radio 103.9 (KUOO) deejay-sports announcer

I think the pandemic woes are likely to hit the Oscars like it has all other awards shows. There just aren’t enough exciting movies to get into the show this year. I’m guessing it will take a 50 percent hit like the other awards shows and 11.57 million viewers.

Terence Henderson, T Dog Media

The pandemic has put a dent in major movie releases with theaters closed, and you have the recent ratings decline for all most recent major awards shows. I’m predicting 10.75 million viewers for Sunday’s Oscar telecast; I don’t think the interest is there.