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What the Oscars can learn from the lowest-rated Emmys ever

As strange as it sounds, the upcoming Oscars can learn a lot from what turned out to be the lowest-rated Emmys ever.

Given the obsession with recovering, or at least stemming the decline, of award-show ratings after they cratered during the pandemic, that might seem counterintuitive. But the Emmy telecast got several key things right, while running into what amounted to a perfect storm in terms of depressing its viewership.

Specifically, the four-month delay prompted by the writers and actors strikes positioned the telecast on Fox, on a Monday night, opposite an NFL playoff game that crushed it more than football normally does. Throw in attention devoted to the Iowa caucuses and the fact the Emmys followed the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards – which honored many of the same people – by a matter of days, and the ratings drop (to 4.3 million viewers, down roughly 25% from 2022) was easily predictable.

The Academy Awards, which will announce nominations on January 23 and air on March 10 with host Jimmy Kimmel, won’t face those particular headwinds. Yet they do come into 2024 plagued by questions about the show and more broadly the film industry, and perhaps most specifically whether voters will seek to help themselves ratings-wise with the movies they choose to nominate.

Jimmy Kimmel seen here backstage during the 95th Annual Academy Awards in 2023, will host the ceremony again this year. - Al Seib/AMPAS/Getty Images
Jimmy Kimmel seen here backstage during the 95th Annual Academy Awards in 2023, will host the ceremony again this year. - Al Seib/AMPAS/Getty Images

On the plus side, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have two full-fledged hits, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” to consider, with the latter having emerged as the season’s clear frontrunner. There are also an assortment of stars and elements, from Ryan Gosling’s “I’m Just Ken” and Billie Eilish’s “Barbie” song to Olivia Rodrigo’s musical contribution to the latest “The Hunger Games” movie, offering the opportunity to punctuate the show with material that could appeal to different and wider demographic segments.

While still low compared to its heyday, last year’s Oscars improved over 2022, to 18.7 million viewers on ABC, according to Nielsen data. Given the steady decline of linear television, any gain is defying gravity and cause for celebration in TV circles.

Despite that, calculated attempts to jump-start the ratings might not matter much. These days, younger audiences don’t have the same award-viewing habits and seem content to catch clips of highlights as opposed to sitting through a three-hour-plus presentation.

Oscar ratings also could take a hit this year due to the decision to move the start time up an hour, to 7 p.m. ET. While that provides one advantage – East Coast viewers won’t have to stay up until well past 11 p.m. – the tradeoff could will likely be sacrificing West Coast tune-in for a show that begins there long before the sun goes down.

So what lesson can the Emmys convey? Basically, if chasing harder-to-get viewers has a slim chance of moving the ratings needle, don’t waste energy trying to second-guess what will, and focus on putting on a good show.

"Cheers" cast Ted Danson, Rhea Perlman, Kelsey Grammer, John Ratzenberger, George Wendt speak onstage during the 75th Emmy Awards on Jan. 15. - Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images
"Cheers" cast Ted Danson, Rhea Perlman, Kelsey Grammer, John Ratzenberger, George Wendt speak onstage during the 75th Emmy Awards on Jan. 15. - Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

Also, the Emmys moved at a surprisingly brisk pace, so much so the producers actually needed to fill time near the end. Speeding up the Oscars in the early going would deliver similar benefits, allowing the highest-profile recipients and films more latitude instead of rushing down the stretch.

Finally, tailor the show to people who want to watch it. Honoring the industry’s history, something the 75th Emmys did through series reunions sprinkled throughout the night, appeals to them, which doesn’t mean diminishing its present. Granted, reassembling the “Cheers” gang won’t bring in a younger demo, but it nicely served those inclined to show up.

As noted, this year’s Oscars already have one advantage in that they can legitimately nominate several movies people have seen, giving them a stronger rooting interest. Rely on that to ease the pressure on the show itself.

Too often, award shows feel as if they’re pandering to those who are indifferent to them. Instead, take a page from the 75th Emmys: Deliver something that works for the industry and its most loyal patrons, and let the Nielsen chips fall where they may.

Nominations for the 96th Academy Awards will be announced January 23.

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