Channing Tatum, and Charlize Theron dance while Oscars host Seth MacFarlane… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Seth MacFarlane may have sung about Oscar's losers, but he wasn't among them. Sunday's movie awards ceremony produced its best ratings in years, even as critics rapped the "Family Guy" producer for some off-color humor.
An average of 40.3 million viewers tuned in to the live Oscar telecast on ABC, according to Nielsen. The ceremony — hosted by MacFarlane, the creator of TV's "Family Guy" and director of the movie comedy "Ted" — drew its best numbers since 2010 and were up a modest 2% over last year's show hosted by Billy Crystal. Overall, it was the second most-watched Oscar telecast since 2005.
Officials at ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which organizes the Oscars, have grown increasingly concerned by the steady aging of the show's audience. The median age of Oscar viewers was once reliably in the 40s, but last year it crept up to nearly 53 — well outside the adults ages 18-to-49 demographic that most advertisers seek.
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The choice of MacFarlane represented an effort by Oscar officials to connect with younger viewers, and the strategy appears to have worked. Ratings were up 11% among viewers 18 to 49.
"It appears that MacFarlane did his job in getting younger viewers to the telecast," said Brad Adgate, an analyst with ad firm Horizon Media in New York. "His opening had some components that appealed to his core audience of young adults and young males, even though the show was essentially very similar to the ones in years past."
Critics were sharply divided on MacFarlane's performance, with some ripping the host as anti-Semitic, sexist and unfunny and others praising him for audacity. Detractors were especially upset by a production number dedicated to actresses who had revealed their breasts on-screen, as well as some cracks made by the anthropomorphic teddy bear from "Ted" that joked about Hollywood being run by Jews.
"Every comedian is entitled to wide latitude," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center, in a statement. "But no one should get a free pass for helping to promote anti-Semitism."
Many reviewers complained as usual about the length of the show (more than 3 1/2 hours) as well as the lack of surprises. Times critic Mary McNamara said the show defined new standards in dullness.
MacFarlane did song-and-dance routines as well as questionable jokes. He opened the show with an extended dialogue with William Shatner, who reprised his role as "Star Trek's" Captain Kirk and warned him of the perils of failing as an Oscar host. MacFarlane ended the show singing a duet with Kristin Chenoweth dedicated to nominees who had not won an award.
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In fact, much of the credit for the ratings bounce is likely due less to MacFarlane than to the nominated films, which were as a group more popular than last year's crop. Several have passed more than $100 million in domestic box office, including "Les Misérables," "Lincoln" and "Silver Linings Playbook."
As expected, "Argo" — Ben Affleck's recounting of an effort to rescue American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis — won best picture.
An Oscar spokesperson could not be reached for comment. An ABC spokesman referred a request for comment about the ratings to the academy.
As welcome as the ratings may have been for the academy, the numbers were still nowhere near the heights scaled by Oscar in the past. In 1998, the year that "Titanic" was named best picture, 55.2 million viewers tuned in — at a time when the U.S. population was considerably smaller than it is now.
On the other hand, the Oscars remains one of the few telecasts that can draw a sizable audience — a distinction not lost on TV executives. The only annual event that easily outpaces the Oscars is the Super Bowl. And that could be very good news for one envelope-pushing host.
"The Oscars have reestablished themselves as the top-rated telecast that is not sports-related," Adgate said. "Based on these numbers, I expect MacFarlane to return for a second year."
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