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What is the Ratings Outlook for the 91st Annual Academy Awards on ABC?

Several media professionals provide their takes on how many will tune in to this year's ceremony.

The conclusion of the busy awards season arrives this Sunday, February 24, with the annual ceremony that’s the granddaddy of award shows, the Academy Awards.

The year of 2018 in cinema featured, of course, a slew of popular superhero fare, led by Marvel’s mega-hit “Black Panther”. It also proved that music-themed movies (“A Star Is Born”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”) can become huge box office hits as well.

The ceremony to honor the year in film, though, has been riddled with behind-the-scenes missteps. The suggested addition of a “Best Popular Film” category was quickly scrapped. Then, the high-profile hire of comedian Kevin Hart as Oscars host was met with immediate pushback due to Hart’s years-old homophobic tweets and his present reluctance to apologize for those past comments. That led to Hart bowing out as host, and despite former Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres having lobbied for Hart to be reinstated, the Oscars are moving forward without a host for the first time since 1989.

The foibles didn’t end there: only two of the five Best Original Song nominees were originally set to perform live but after discussions, all five will be featured. Then, awards for four of the 24 categories — cinematography, makeup and hairstyling, film editing, and live action short — were to be handed out during the commercial breaks and aired in edited form later in the show. This decision was met with major backlash by several directors, cinematographers and actors. The Oscars producers quickly acquiesced, as a result, so all 24 categories’ winners will be announced live on the telecast.

As Major League Baseball tries to do, the Oscars are attempting to cut its running time while improving the flow of its show (or, in the case of MLB, its pace-of-play). The Oscars telecast has notoriously been known to be a long slog. The last ten ceremonies have averaged 215 minutes in length (3.5 hours) with only three (2009, 2011 and 2012) coming in at or under that average. Not since 1973 has the Oscars lasted under three hours.

The Oscars’ biggest crowds featured big blockbusters that garnered major awards like Best Picture winners “Titanic” in 1998 and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” in 2015. “Black Panther”, grossing well over $1 billion worldwide, has a legitimate chance to take home the grand prize of Best Picture this year. The wide-open race could also be won by the hit Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” or by pop music superstar Lady Gaga’s first entry as leading actress, starring alongside one of Hollywood’s biggest stars Bradley Cooper “A Star is Born”. Of course, most are looking forward to the live performance by Gaga and Cooper of their film’s hit song “Shallow.”

Despite the award contenders, will the current fragmented nature of audiences make it impossible for even the Oscars to return to 30+ million viewer figures? The 2018 ceremony drew a record-low 26.6 million viewers, down 19 percent from the year prior. And earlier this month, the biggest TV telecast of all, the Super Bowl, drew below 100 million viewers on the linear TV platform — the first time that’s happened in ten years.

According to a poll of our Twitter followers, those on social media share that ratings pessimism. More than half surveyed believe the Oscars will drop at least another 20 percent this year to below 22 million viewers.

I inquired with professionals in the media industry to provide their ratings prognostications for the upcoming Academy Awards. Here are their takes (as for me, I’m predicting 22.5 million. The Oscars will still be the most-watched awards show on TV but more impactful than its overly long running time, it suffers from the sense that it’s simply not fun. The Oscars are a chore to watch each year, seeing the Hollywood industry constantly congratulating itself. Plus, award shows overall have lost their luster, primarily due to audiences having many alternative options for entertainment readily available (thanks, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc). ):

Marc Berman, Programming Insider editor-in-chief
24.7 million viewers. The caliber of movies this year are not mass appeal hits and having no host for the ceremony will be detrimental.

Neil Best, Newsday
On one hand, millennials don’t know or care what TV is, so these numbers never will fully recover. On the other hand, this year’s field includes several movies people actually have seen, so I’ll predict a modest rebound to the 33 million the show drew in 2017.

Jason Jacobs, KUOO deejay/sports announcer
I do think there is more overall interest than the past few years. Not having a host though and the general downward trend of TV ratings has me thinking we will be near the same number as last year. I’m guessing 26.1 million 

Eric Deggans, NPR
20 million viewers. It seems that every awards show is getting down to a core of viewers who will watch, regardless of who the host or nominees are. And that core gets smaller every year.

Tony Maglio, The Wrap
27.7 million. I think the movies — or at least the idea that Lady Gaga could be standing on stage when all is said and done — are a slight upgrade (in terms of buzz and superhero count) from last year. The no-host thing could add some intrigue, or it could bore people — probably both. A new pledge to keep the show to time should help, and the Golden Globes and Grammys show that leveling off in 2019 is possible, and possibly even the expectation.

Patrick Crakes, Crakes Media Consulting, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports Senior Vice President Programming in Research & Content Strategy
With several popular movies in the running for Best Picture (A Star is Born, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody), The 91st Academy Awards bounce back a bit to average 28.3M viewers, a +6% increase over last year’s all-time low of 26.2M. Good story lines with the general public such as whether Glenn Close and Spike Lee will win their first ever Oscars, a live musical performance by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, and curiosity surrounding the host/no-host/show format saga also provide some viewer interest tail winds.

Anthony Crupi, AdAge
Setting aside the whole “oops, no host*” issue, the art-house yawners that are nominated every year for Best Picture speak volumes about why the ratings for the Academy Awards have dropped 40% in the last four years. By all means, enjoy your precious black-and-white Eurotrash and I’ll enjoy my equally indefensible nonsense, but the fact that there hasn’t been a compulsively re-watchable Best Picture winner since No Country for Old Men in 2008 or The Departed in 2007 goes a long way toward explaining why so many people who aren’t fossilized studio execs in Brentwood or Beverly Hills or Glendale don’t care about the movie biz’s annual celebration of itself. 

In keeping with the relative stability of this season’s Emmys, Golden Globes and Grammy Awards broadcasts, the 91st Oscars falls to another all-time low but doesn’t suffer the 20% sequential drop delivered by last year’s show. Call it 24.9 million viewers and a 14.3 household rating, which should suffice to keep ABC’s presentation among the year’s top 20 most-watched U.S. broadcasts.

*Just give Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter $20 million to emcee in character as Bill & Ted. If nothing else, it will make people forget they’re having to root between Roma and The Favourite.

Austin Karp, SportsBusiness Daily assistant managing editor
22.2 million viewers. It feels like there has been much less buzz for the Oscars this year, and I have to believe much of that is due to the lack of a host. I also haven’t seen any of the normal TV spots for the Oscars that I have seen in recent years during ABC or ESPN programming.

Terence Henderson, T Dog Media
With no announced host and a lackluster slate of Best Picture nominations (besides Black Panther), I predict 25.1 million viewers will tune in for The Oscars.