Shtick’s Ahoy: Billy Crystal’s Oscars Draw 39.3M Viewers

Numbers up despite creaky gags, smaller films

ABC may have played it safe with its telecast of the 84th Academy Awards, but Sunday’s rather toothless affair appears to have paid off in the ratings.

According to preliminary Nielsen data, ABC’s Oscars presentation averaged 39.3 million total viewers, marking a 4 percent improvement from last year’s 37.9 million.

If the numbers stand—deliveries for live events generally undergo a good deal of adjustment between the release of fast nationals and final ratings—Sunday’s show will rank as the second most watched Oscars in the last five years.

Only the 2010 Oscars, which served as a coronation of sorts for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, outdelivered this year’s model. The 82nd Academy Awards delivered 41.7 million viewers.

The all-time low-water mark was reached in 2008, when the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men was crowned Best Picture in front of a national TV audience of 32 million viewers. Oscar’s greatest triumph was reached in 1998, the year James Cameron’s Titanic ran the table. That broadcast served up 55.2 million viewers.

In handing the hosting duties to Billy Crystal and his Borscht Belt shtick and dispensing with the traditionally bloated musical performances, ABC doled out a familiar, if less than bracing, Oscars brew. Pinch-hitting for Eddie Murphy—the comedian resigned his commission in November, shortly after the Academy fired producer Brett Ratner—Crystal delivered an uninspired performance, trotting out his familiar song-and-dance opener before easing into a steady stream of Catskills-friendly gags.

A typical Crystal groaner, following an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink performance by Cirque du Soleil: “We’ve got Muppets, acrobats … We’re a pony away from a bar mitzvah!”

In his opening bit, Crystal engaged the services of Justin Bieber, who chirped that he was there “to get you the 18-to-24 demographic.” Bieber’s cameo played like a cutesy goof on last year’s disastrous pairing of youth-bait James Franco and Anne Hathaway, but like so many of the gags in last night’s show, it was an inside joke. (It’s unlikely that the nation’s movie buffs know or care that the median age for the last two Oscars broadcasts was 51 years.)

Crystal has hosted the Academy Awards nine times.

While the final time-zone adjusted numbers have yet to be tallied, it appears that last night’s show was essentially flat in the all-important 18-to-49 demo (11.7 versus an 11.8 in 2011).

The average cost of a 30-second spot in this year’s broadcast was $1.7 million a pop, on par with last year’s going rate. The high-water mark remains the premeltdown year of 2008 when ABC commanded as much as $1.82 million for a single spot.

The silent, black-and-white film The Artist won Best Picture, beating out a field that included The Help, Midnight in ParisMoneyball and War Horse. The film had the third-lowest gross for any of the nominees, taking in $31.8 million at the box office. The Help was the biggest financial hit of the nine recognized films, raking in $169.6 million.

On the social media front, two on-air events quickly gave rise to dedicated Twitter accounts. Angelina Jolie’s onstage vamping inspired some wag to register @AngiesRightLeg; by Monday afternoon, the feed had exactly 18,000 followers.

Later in the broadcast, Jennifer Lopez’ wardrobe malfunction was followed in short order by the birth of the @JLosNipple feed. That account has attracted nearly 2,900 followers.