Oscar organizers wanted higher ratings, and all they could get was Chris Rock? Maybe they should have just ... waited.
At his much-anticipated debut hosting Hollywood's biggest night, Rock didn't utter any naughty words -- as some had feared he might -- but he didn't boost ratings, either.
Average viewership of the 77th Academy Awards telecast on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC slipped 5% to 41.5 million viewers compared with last year's show, according to preliminary data from Nielsen Media Research. Save for 2003's telecast -- when the outbreak of the Iraq war depressed ratings to 33 million viewers -- Sunday's was the least-watched Oscars since 1997.
Organizers hoped that Rock, an edgy stand-up comic and former cast member of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," would help shake the ceremony out of its ratings doldrums. But despite a weeks-long drumbeat of irreverent comments (Rock told one interviewer that award shows are "idiotic") and worries that the host might indulge in an expletive-laden tirade that would bait the Federal Communications Commission, the ceremony slipped 3% among viewers aged 18 to 49. That's the group most coveted by advertisers.
On Monday morning, many critics dissed Rock's performance, including a monologue that ribbed second-choice stars.
"You want Tom Cruise and all you can get is Jude Law? Wait," he joked. "You want Denzel [Washington] and all you can get is me? Wait."
To be fair, the tepid numbers were not all Rock's fault. This year's nominated films failed to stoke much enthusiasm among moviegoers. None of the five features tapped in the best picture category has grossed $100 million domestically, the traditional benchmark for a major hit.
The winner, director Clint Eastwood's boxing fable "Million Dollar Baby," was released Dec. 15 and had grossed about $65 million through last weekend. By comparison, last year's winner, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," took in $377 million in the U.S.
Given the box-office apathy, organizers said they were pleased that Rock hung on to as many viewers as he did.
"There was some bleary-eyed high-fiving going on here" when the ratings came in, said Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Davis added that before the telecast, officials were simply hoping that the program wouldn't fall below 40 million viewers. "I think you have to give Chris Rock a lot of the credit that it was only a slight dip," he said.
ABC, which recently extended its deal for the Oscar telecast through 2014, also gave Rock a thumbs-up.
"He brought a lot of freshness to the show, and it was fun to watch," said Andrea Wong, ABC's executive vice president overseeing the Oscars. She noted that the telecast was up among women aged 18 to 34.
She and others also credited Rock for keeping the show, produced by Gil Cates, down to a little more than three hours (last year's telecast lasted nearly four). But many TV veterans unconnected to the Oscars found the ceremony anti-climactic.
"I wish they could have been funnier," said Shari Ann Brill, vice president at New York advertising firm Carat. "There's still such a post-Janet Jackson backlash.... [Rock] had to be so circumscribed and restrained that it had a negative impact on what he could bring to the table."
Ranking Rock in the pantheon of Oscar hosts, Brad Adgate of Horizon Media in New York picked two extremes.
"He was somewhere between David Letterman and Billy Crystal," he said. Letterman flopped disastrously as host in 1995, while Crystal, who hosted last year, is a perennial favorite.
Asked whether Rock would be invited back, Davis said it would be premature to speculate given that the academy had not hired a producer for next year.
Rock appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on Monday, where Winfrey wondered whether he had been "dangerous" enough on Oscar night.
"You got to remember, I was working for some people," Rock replied with a nervous laugh.
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Average viewership of the Academy Awards
(In millions of people)
Feb. 27, 2005: 41.5
Feb. 29, 2004: 43.5
March 23, 2003: 33.0
March 24, 2002: 41.8
March 25, 2001: 42.9
March 26, 2000: 46.3
March 21, 1999: 45.6
Source: Nielsen Media Research