Every year dozens of respected publications, television journalists, Academy Award publicists, and the nominated or presenting actors repeat the same statistic: that the Academy Awards is watched by a worldwide audience of a billion. At bottom, this is Hollywood hyperbole at its best. An objective analysis by Carl Bialik (“The Numbers Guy”) of the Wall Street Journal and Daniel Radosh of the New Yorker have arrived at a number that is closer to several hundred million.
If the number is so much lower than 1 billion, how did this media urban myth even get started? Radosh traces the exaggerated number back to UPI columnist, Vernon Scott who probably cited an AP article from March 24, 1985 that mentioned the “one billion” figure. Clearly, Scott subscribed to the oft-repeated quote: “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it” (although Goebbels never said that exactly, it has been attributed to him); and Scott used “one billion” in his articles more than 39 times from 1985 to 2002. Interestingly, his editor — or any reader for that matter — never asked for the data to backup this outrageous statistic. So much for a vigilante press. Like a startup company’s stock value, the reported Oscar ratings figure went on a roller coaster ride over the years, listed as “a billion,” “an estimated billion,” “more than a billion,” “1.5 billion,” “2.5 billion,” and circling back to “a reported billion.”
According to the Nielsen Company that provides household ratings for television, the largest audience for the Oscars was 55.2 million back in 1998. In 2011, that number was much lower — 40.2 million plus an additional 200,000 viewers watching the broadcast on DVR at a later time. That still leaves about 960 million of viewers to account for. Radosh does the math: “[Even] though the ceremony is broadcast in more than a 150 countries, in many of those it is available only on satellite or cable channels that have relatively few subscribers. If one uses some generous estimates, the total potential audience for the Oscars is around two billion [the estimated number of TVs in the world]. 15% of 2 billion is only 300 million. Few other countries track television audiences the way the United States does, so solid data are hard to come by, but the evidence isn’t promising. For instance, of the 715 million Chinese who could have tuned in last year, only one per cent did.” Incidentally, in 2014, according to ratings company, Nielsen, 43.7 million Americans tuned in to watch the Academy Awards hosted by Ellen DeGeneres. The viewership in the U.S. for past years are as follows:
With some persistence, Radosh managed to get an official correction from a publicist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in his article published in 2005. The publicist, Leslie Unger, stated “I think several years ago that was a number [“one billion”] that a variety of entities handed out. I don’t believe any entity now thinks that the number has any veracity. Our best estimate is several hundred million.” But rather than sending out a new press release, Hollywood hopes that most people didn’t read these articles, so they can keep hyping the “audience of one billion” — after all, it isn’t called “tinseltown” for nothing.
Below are the ratings for the Oscars in recent years (U.S. audience only):
2016 – 88th Annual Academy Awards host: Chris Rock, 34.4 million viewers
2015 – 87th Annual Academy Awards host: Neil Patrick Harris, 36.6 million viewers
2014 – 86th Annual Academy Awards host: Ellen DeGeneres, 43.7 million viewers
2013 – 85th Annual Academy Awards host: Seth MacFarlane, 40.3 million viewers
2012 – 84th Annual Academy Awards host: Billy Crystal, 39.3 million viewers
2011 – 83th Annual Academy Awards hosts: James Franco and Anne Hathaway, 37.9 million viewers
2010 – 82nd Annual Academy Awards hosts: Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, 42 million viewers
For further reading: newyorker.com/archive/2005/02/28/050228ta_talk_radosh.
Oscars TV Ratings Take a Nosedive, Hitting an 8-Year Low