‘Barbenheimer,’ and an Early Start, Boost Oscar Ratings to 4-Year High

The comeback of live event TV continues.

ABC’s telecast of the 96th Academy Awards on Sunday drew 19.5 million viewers, hitting a four-year viewership high, according to Nielsen. The live TV audience was up from last year’s 18.8 million, the third consecutive year that Oscar viewership has grown.

The ratings report will prompt cheers at ABC and the academy, which bumped the start of the venerable awards ceremony to 7 p.m. Eastern, an hour earlier than usual, in the hopes that more viewers would stick around through the final categories.

That approach appeared to pay dividends, as did the numerous nominations for the big box office hits “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” — a change from recent years when more obscure films dominated the ceremony. Jimmy Kimmel also received warm reviews in his fourth outing as host, leaving him one away from matching another late-night star who moonlighted at the Oscars, Johnny Carson.

Nielsen said that Sunday’s Oscars were the most-watched network awards show since February 2020, extending a recent trend where viewer interest has perked up for the kind of mass cultural events that struggled during the pandemic.

In February, 16.9 million people watched the Grammy Awards, a 34 percent increase from last year. Viewership of the Golden Globes in January rose 50 percent compared with a year ago. The Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers beat ratings records with an audience of 123.7 million. Even ratings for the 2023 Tony Awards, traditionally the least-viewed of the “EGOT” quartet, rose modestly.

At Sunday’s Oscars, Billie Eilish sang her pop ballad “What Am I Made For?” and Ryan Gosling delivered a cheeky yet dedicated performance of “I’m Just Ken.” The choreography, which drew on Busby Berkeley films and the Marilyn Monroe musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” was complemented by a cameo by the thrash-rock guitarist Slash and a bevy of supporting Kens from “Barbie,” including Simu Liu.

ABC, which has the broadcast rights to the Oscars through 2028, said that it had sold out its advertising inventory for Sunday’s event. The network did not share prices, but advertising executives said ABC had charged $1.7 million to $2.2 million for a 30-second spot, up slightly from last year. Some of the ads turned up in the broadcast itself, like a plug for Don Julio tequila, in which Guillermo Rodriguez, a Kimmel sidekick, offered the beverage to celebrities in the audience.

In 2021, for a stripped-down pandemic Oscars held in a Los Angeles train station, only 10.4 million people tuned in. Viewership rose in 2022 to 16.6 million people, in part because of the bizarre spectacle of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock.

Still, there is no question that TV viewing habits have changed. Before 2018, the Oscars telecast had never dropped below 32 million viewers.

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