Will ‘Barbenheimer’ spur an Oscarcast viewership surge? Don’t bet against it

It’s hardly a secret that viewership of the annual Academy Awards telecast on ABC has been in precipitous decline over the past four years or so in the age of COVID, with a notable but comparatively modest upward bump last year. It was in 2021 that the ratings and audience numbers suffered a massive nosedive in the wake of  the coronavirus closing theaters and wreaking havoc with the release schedule, plummeting from 23.6 million viewers on average in 2020 to a scant 10.4 million in 2021. The audience rebounded in 2022 – to 16.6 million – and then a bit more last year, to 18.7 million.

But hope springs eternal this year in the age of “Barbenheimer.” For the first time in some two decades, a genuine box office phenomenon is favored to win Best Picture. In 2004, it was the international blockbuster “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” This time, it’s “Oppenheimer.” Back in ’04, viewers flocked to the telecast to the tune of 43.5 million, the most in four years at the time. The biggest-ever TV audience for the Oscarcast happened in 1998, the year when “Titanic” ruled the ceremony and attracted a whopping 57.25 million viewers to ABC.

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In short, it’s the years when viewers have a significant rooting interest for a film or films they’ve seen in large numbers and has massive popularity that the audience for the Academy Awards telecast rises, not surprisingly. Take 2014. It also showed a healthy viewership bounce during a year whose Best Picture contenders included “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle” and eventual winner “12 Years a Slave.” Last year’s small bump might have been attributable in part to the fact that a pair of moviegoing smash hits were among the leading contenders: “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

By contrast, the year that Oscar viewership reached its nadir (’21) boasted nomination attention for a collection of movies seen by a comparative few: “The Father,” “Mank,” “Nomadland” (the eventual winner), “Minari,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Sound of Metal” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.” In any year without a popular breakout hit, the broadcast seems to suffer some measure of comparative viewer apathy.

SEEOscar nominations: Full list of contenders in all 23 categories

This brings us back to right now. Clearly, the ceremony remains in recovery mode after taking such a drastic COVID hit in 2021 that saw it lose more than half of its audience in that single year. But with a pair of such megahit movies earning massive Academy Award nomination recognition with 21 bids combined, there’s something of an “If not now, when?” vibe in the air. “Barbie” ($1.4 billion internationally) and “Oppenheimer” (with a global take of $952 million) saved the 2023 box office. There seemed to be nothing this pair couldn’t do. Can they make the Oscars the Super Bowl of entertainment specials again?

The likely answer is: yes and no. There is thought to be too much competition these days – from streaming, from cable, from everything – to approach the lofty Academy Awards viewership numbers of the past. The days when it pulled in 30 million and even 40 million viewers annually are likely a thing of the past. But attracting in excess of 20 million or potentially 25 million sets of eyes certainly seems achievable.

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