Despite fears that The Last of Us’s show-stopper finale could cannibalize a portion of the Oscars’ audience, both shows ended up doing just fine. TLOU reported a season-high viewership of 8.2 million, while the Oscars also trended up, gaining 13% on last year’s audience for a total viewership of 18.8 million. This makes the Oscars far and away the most-viewed award show and is also a three-year high for the telecast.
Of course, another way to put it is that this was the third-worst year for the Oscars’ ratings, but the optimistic spin is that slowly but surely, the industry is recovering from the pandemic and “getting back to normal” (for better or worse). The 2020 Oscars’ telecast brought in 23.6 million viewers, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility to see the show returning to those numbers in the next year or so.
This year’s telecast was aided by a number of high-profile nominees: Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick were the top two grossing films of 2022, Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All At Once was the summer’s sleeper hit and grossed over $100 million, and Elvis made over $288 million. People had actually seen several of the top nominees, so this was not a “who watches movies, even” year for the Oscars. Further, there was undoubtedly a macabre fascination to tune in and see what would happen after The Slap. After an “on-the-rails” Oscars, will people still be interested next year?
More interesting, though, are the social media numbers. In a blatant act of tooting their own horn, Variety reported they had their highest-ever day of social media traffic in the twenty-four hours following the start of their red carpet coverage. While this is an act of corporate braggadocio so shameless it’s almost admirable, it also goes to a creeping feeling I’ve had for years now, which is that even as the live television ratings have trended down over the last twenty years, social media engagement is actually very high. Variety, braggarts they may be, is actually giving us some evidence of this. People might not sit through the entirety of the telecast as they once did, when the Oscars were the only thing airing on a Sunday night, but people are still looking at red carpet photos, watching interview clips, and checking out the show’s highlights the day after.
As much as we talk about fixing the Oscars, one of the easiest “fixes” might just be paying more attention to how people are actually engaging with the show in the twenty-first century, and not belaboring the ratings. They might creep back up to 20+ million, but the days of the 50+ million audience are gone, at least if you’re only counting live television viewing. But if you use Variety’s rodomontade as a blueprint, there is a whole new way of measuring the cultural relevance of the Oscars, and that’s with clicks, hits, and views. Either that or put the whole thing on streaming and shut up forever about viewership.
Live long and gossip,