3 Reasons Why The Oscar Ratings Are Up

Hint: It doesn’t hurt to have movies people actually like.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Jennifer Lawrence poses backstage after she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Silver Linings Playbook at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 24, 2013.

The early returns on the Oscarcast are in, and despite the ferocious reviews the show is receiving, they are pretty good.

The first morning numbers — to be revised later in the day — have the show receiving a 26.6 rating and a 41 share, which is decent 4% improvement over last year’s Billy Crystal–hosted event. Better still for the Oscars’ future: The show appears to have improved a stunning 19% in the 18- to 49-year-old demo.

Writing Oscar’s obituary has become such a ritual that it will be hard for the industry to even wrap its head around the good news. But a first glance at why suggests a few big answers. How is America’s oldest cultural event — one that pre-dates television itself — still able to show signs of life? We’ve got three explanations.

1. The Films

Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times / MCT

Six of this year’s nominees have topped $100 million dollars at the box office. A seventh (Zero Dark Thirty) is not far behind, leaving only Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour as the true indies of the bunch.

Compare that with last year, for instance, when the French silent film that took the Best Picture prize topped out around $44 million at the box office, and the widely perceived runner-up The Descendants barely squeaked past $80 million.

There has been a trend in recent years of studios making fewer big- to medium-budget adult dramas, leaving that to the indies and the festival circuit, with the result that the Oscars end up being about a bunch of niche films that few have seen. Little wonder, then, when the public hasn’t seen the movies, they don’t have much interest in which one wins.

This year, however, the industry defied the obituaries and produced, as the nominees demonstrate, a slate of big Hollywood productions aimed toward adult audiences, not just teenage boys taking a break from the video games. As a result, it appears that a broad adult audience showed up for the big night.

2. The Host

Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times / MCT

The reality of Seth MacFarlane at the helm may not have been so great, but as a selling point to young viewers, it sure was an improvement over Billy Crystal. After the blistering reviews, the chances that he’ll be asked back are slim, but his presence demonstrates that having a host whose career is familiar to people who were born after 1980 makes a huge difference if you’re trying to lure those people back aboard.

3. Community

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

While the general trend of the past decade has been the fragmentation and niche-ification of American culture, little noticed has been a counter-trend: a yearning again for community.

Even as the ratings for the traditional broadcast networks continue to plummet, in recent years (overall, if not year-to-year), ratings for the Super Bowl, presidential debates, and the Grammy Awards are all up.

As we break up into our separate lunch tables, there have been signs across the culture of a hunger for these national moments, of people wanting to be a part of the things that everyone is talking about. With Twitter and social media fanning the flames ever hotter, there seems to be an appetite to acknowledge and celebrate them more than ever.

The Oscars is the greatest cultural brand America has, an event that has gone on for 85 years almost unchanged. It is a celebration of the truest American medium: big-budget studio filmmaking. If the Oscars can make inroads with the new generation of viewers for whom the social media experience of sharing an event is part of the fun, there is no reason it shouldn’t stay on top for another 85 years.

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