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Academy Awards Telecast Gets Its Biggest U.S. Audience Ever

Television: Executives credit the broadcast's success to increased interest in this year's movies, especially 'Titanic.'

March 25, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Riding the wake of "Titanic," Academy Award viewing was indeed as good as it's gotten Monday, attracting the largest U.S. audience ever for the annual showcase.

More than 55 million people watched the telecast from beginning to end, according to Nielsen Media Research--25 million more than view television's top-rated series, "Seinfeld," during an average week.

Bucking a general decline for the major networks, viewing rose 27% compared to last year. Even the household rating--the percentage of homes, the number of which rises as population grows--soared to its highest level since 1983, when "Gandhi" was proclaimed best picture.

Executives attributed much of the heightened tune-in to the lineup of movies, especially "Titanic"--which is expected to steam past the $500-million domestic box-office mark this week, having totaled more than 100 million theater admissions since its release. In one sign of the "Leo" factor--referring to the film's star, Leonardo DiCaprio--viewing among teens surged more than 70% over 1997.

"Last year's nominees were fabulous movies, but they were a little more esoteric," ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg said Tuesday. "The great thing about this season is that it was all populist movies."

"The more people who see the films, the more interest there is in the show," added Oscar producer Gil Cates.

Ratings might have been slightly higher had the 3-hour, 47-minute show run shorter, though Cates said that, given the 70th anniversary festivities, the length was difficult to curb. The producer likened the telecast to a great baseball game or meal, saying, "It is not how long it is. It is how long it's good. . . . The real criterion is whether it's enjoyable."

Length may be less of a concern next year, given that the broadcast is expected to shift to Sunday night, which would allow the show to begin an hour earlier.

Unlike the Eastern time zone, where some people tuned out as the awards extended well past midnight, the telecast's epic length didn't drain viewers locally. KABC-TV Channel 7 drew an astounding 52% of all homes, reaching nearly 2.6 million households in its viewing area. KABC's pre-Oscar show also enjoyed a ratings increase, surpassing the combined audience for competing coverage on channels 4 and 5.

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Los Angeles scored the highest rating among major cities individually monitored by Nielsen, attracting a larger local audience than the most recent Super Bowl.

National advertisers paid a bit more than $900,000 for each 30-second commercial but actually received what amounts to a bargain: The show delivered more viewers than anyone could have anticipated when those deals were negotiated several months ago.

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