Billy Crystal’s return to host the Oscars for a ninth time represents a departure from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ recent attempts to recruit younger people. Like the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards remains one of the few programs that can attain widespread viewership in today’s 500-channel universe. While the awards show is often the highest-rated non-football program of the year, it has struggled to maintain the attention of 18-34 year olds who didn’t necessarily grow up watching it.
The Oscars, like all TV programs, has experienced declining audiences in recent years, never matching the record 57 million that watched the megahit “Titanic” sweep the awards in 1998. As a result, the academy has sought out hosts who appeal to a younger demographic, with Chris Rock, Hugh Jackman, and John Stewart (twice) receiving the opportunity since Crystal last hosted in 2004. None of these performers were particularly good or bad, with the notable exception of the James Franco/Anne Hathaway disaster of last year. Nevertheless, viewership has continued to fall, due to expanding entertainment options as well as the fact that many of the victorious films in the last few years have not been box office hits. While critics have often lambasted the Oscars for rewarding commercial movies, recent winners like “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007) were hardly blockbusters.
With no hit film likely to do well tonight, Crystal’s return is unlikely to reverse the trend of diminishing audiences, especially among younger viewers, given that his heyday came in the late 80s and early 90s with movies like “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) and “City Slickers” (1991). Still, he will likely appeal to the traditional Oscar watchers. According to today’s New York Times, 61 percent of the 2011 Academy Awards’ viewership was female, with the highest ratings coming from women over 35. This explains why my mother was the one who got me into watching the program as a kid. And why she told me not to bother her tonight.