Oscars Ratings Are a Reminder Awards Shows Still Among TV's Safest Bets

Even amid years of declines, the Oscars and their brethren still outpace regular programming by wide margins.
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Maya Rudolph (left), Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Oscars

The improved ratings for the 2019 Oscars highlight a broadcast-TV truism that had gotten somewhat lost in the past year: Namely, that even as "record low" got attached to awards show after awards show in 2018, they remained among the safest plays on TV for gathering a large audience.

With 29.6 million viewers, Sunday night's Oscars is currently the most-watched non-sports program of 2019 by a margin of 7.4 million people. Barring a ratings phenomenon not seen on the networks for the last decade or so, it's going to hold that title for the remaining 10 months of the year.

The Grammys and Golden Globes rank third and fourth in viewers for the year, sports excluded, and it's pretty likely they will remain in the top 10 at year's end. (The post-Super Bowl debut of The World's Best on CBS ranks second.)

Even the weakest of the big four awards shows, the Emmys, still pulled in ratings (10.21 million viewers, 2.4 rating in adults 18-49) for NBC that are 30 percent and 33 percent higher, respectively, than the network's current 2018-19 averages.

In this decade, the Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmys all peaked in the 2013-14 season, and the Grammys had their second-largest audience of the decade that year (behind the 2012 show, which spiked following the death of music superstar Whitney Houston). Since then, the trend has been primarily down: The Oscars lost viewers and demo points every year from 2015-18, and all four shows hit all-time lows in at least one measure in 2018.

In 2019, the slide stopped for the most part. The Globes, Grammys and Oscars are collectively up by 4 percent in total viewers (combined 68.09 million vs. 65.36 million last year) and by 4.5 percent in the 18-49 demographic (combined 18.5 rating vs. 17.7). For the season as a whole, the Big Four broadcast networks are down by 6 percent in viewers and 11 percent in the demo. (Last season's numbers are somewhat inflated by NBC having the Winter Olympics in February, but even taking them out, the declines would still be there.)

The gains for the awards shows mirror those of the other reliable ratings engine on network TV: the NFL. Across all of its broadcast windows, regular-season games rose by about 5 percent in 2018 after two years of declines. The playoffs rose by about 11 percent. The lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever took a hit, falling 5 percent year to year, but the league's broadcast partners all had gains for the season.

The awards shows (and live sports) also have an advantage of capturing the vast majority of their viewers in real time, meaning those viewers are far less likely to skip ads than a regularly scheduled show, which can capture half or more of its total audience in the week after it airs. Networks are thus able to charge a premium to advertisers for live events.

In an era of declining ratings across most of ad-supported TV, awards shows (and especially the big ones) are still among the most reliable ways to bring in a mass audience.