Maybe it's the Neil Patrick Harris effect.
Once again an award show featuring the star of CBS' hit sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" saw its ratings grow. While his opening number on Sunday night's Oscar telecast will not exactly go down in history as one of the show's greatest moments, it didn't send viewers running out the door either.
About 41.3 million people watched ABC's coverage of the 82nd Academy Awards, according to Nielsen. That's roughly 39 million more than went to see best picture winner "The Hurt Locker" and a 14% gain from last year's Oscars when "Slumdog Millionaire" was the big winner. It is also the biggest audience for the Oscars since 2005, when "Million Dollar Baby" took home the best picture trophy.
Given the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences controversial decision to expand the best picture category from five films to 10 and "Avatar" -- one of the biggest movies of all time -- landing nine nominations, anything less than 40 million viewers would have probably been a huge disappointment to the academy and ABC.
The strong numbers again highlight the recent rebirth in the strength of live television. The audiences have been growing for award shows and sporting events as of late, with the Golden Globes, Emmy Awards, Super Bowl and Grammy Awards all seeing their audiences expand.
"Big event programming is back in vogue," said Andy Donchin, director of media investments for advertising firm Carat, whose clients include Radio Shack and Papa John's International Inc.
ABC's ratings will help it with advertisers next year. A 30-second spot in Sunday's show went for an average of $1.4 million, according to Kantar Media, an industry consulting firm. That was a big increase from the $990,000 that commercials were sold for in the 2009 awards but still short of the record $1.8 million ABC got for a commercial in the 2008 Oscars, according to Nielsen.
Lots of reasons have been cited for the surge in ratings for live television. In a fractured media universe where everyone has hundreds of television channels and a World Wide Web at their finger tips, the moments of the so-called shared experience are becoming fewer and fewer. While niche cable networks and websites catering to every hobby imaginable pop up every day and find an audience, there also is an appetite for big events shows such as the Oscars and the Super Bowl in which everyone can participate.
While there remains a debate as to whether social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are actually increasing television ratings, the forums do provide a new platform for viewers to connect and critique. "The advent of digital media has actually worked to reinvigorate television," said Carat's Donchin.
ABC and the academy did their part to make ratings growth a challenge. More than 3 million homes in the New York City region almost missed the Oscars because of a dispute between ABC parent Walt Disney Co. and Cablevision Systems that was not resolved until just after the awards show started. Without the deal to get Disney's WABC-TV back on Cablevision homes, odds are the audience would have been smaller. As it is, the first half-hour of the show performed poorly in New York City.
Then there was the show itself. Besides Neil Patrick Harris' cringe-inducing number, there was the bizarre interpretive dance number midway through the telecast and, as usual, the hurried race to the finish line when the producers suddenly realize they are running behind schedule.