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Oscars 2010: Hollywood's TV ratings test

By Stephanie West, Channel 4 News

Updated on 07 March 2010

As Avatar and The Hurt Locker do battle in Hollywood, arts reporter Stephanie West says the Oscars are like every other show on television - chasing ratings.

Oscars night is a massive TV ratings test as well as a big night for those nominated. (Credit: Getty)

Essentially the Oscars are a TV show, albeit the broadcast finale of the most glamorous competition on earth - the Academy Awards.

To put it in context, the 2010 Superbowl was watched on television by 106 million Americans. If the Oscars repeat last year's viewing figures, they’ll draw around a third of that figure.

So, for the press, the story of this year's Academy Awards is the battle of the biggest grossing film of all time (Avatar) against one of the lowest-grossing Oscar nominated films ever (The Hurt Locker) and whether James Cameron will lose out to his ex, Kathryn Bigelow.

It's the battle of the exes, even though they were only briefly married in the early 1990s and have worked together amicably since. And of course whether she'll be the first woman to win best director.

But for the Academy and the network that broadcasts the show, ABC, the story is whether the presence of Cameron and Avatar repeat what happened when Titanic was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11 back in 1998 - the show had a record high of 55 million viewers in America.

Win or lose, they hope Cameron and Avatar will bring back viewers.

For more Channel 4 News coverage of the Oscars
- Mirren, Firth, Mulligan up for 2010 Oscars
- Will Baftas lead to Oscars glory for Brits?
- Iraq film The Hurt Locker sweeps Baftas
- Oscar nominations: the director's cut

They're not just pinning their hopes on him of course. This year it is understood there will be no performances of nominated songs.

Instead there will be celebration of the 10 films nominated in the best picture category, instead of the usual five. That was partly to dilute the risk of having critically-acclaimed films nominated that might not have taken that much at the box office.

Joining Avatar and The Hurt Locker, the other nominees for best motion picture are Up in the Air, The Blind Side, District 9, Up, A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds, An Education and Precious.

This is a return to the practice of the glory days of the 1930s and early forties, when ten films were always nominated. The last to win under those rules was Casablanca.

Gone with the Wind, which beat nine others to best picture in 1939, is still arguably America's highest-grossing film, if you adjust box-office takings for inflation.

What the Academy wants to address is this. Two years ago, the 80th awards set the disappointing record of being the least viewed ceremony domestically - 32 million viewers. At the same time the talent show American Idol was getting around getting 30 million people tuning in.

But the Oscars still make money when the programme is sold to broadcasters across the globe. Worldwide viewing figures are harder to pin down, but the Academy believes it reaches several hundred million each year.

It is all such a change from when the ceremony started. Back in 1927, three dozen of Hollywood's then movers and shakers met in a Los Angeles hotel to discuss setting up an academy of motion pictures to protect and promote their still fledgling industry.

Invited by MGM boss Louis B Meyer, the assembled included Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B DeMille and the leading lady of the time, Mary Pickford.

They decided an academy was just the ticket for the movie business and by 1929, they held their first award show. It was held behind closed doors, with no press allowed. There was also no suspense or build up.

The winners had been told they had won three months before the ceremony, so attended what was essentially a dinner with speeches, held at the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.

Only 270 people attended, and they'd paid five dollars each.

But such was the public interest, and the clamour from journalists, that in 1930, the Academy allowed an LA radio station to make an hour long broadcast of the second Academy Awards.
In 1953 it was televised for the very first time, and in 1969, it was broadcast internationally. In the 1970s they began compiling audience viewing figures.
Now the Oscars are still the most coveted film award in the world. No question. What the telecast producers are aiming for are audiences to match.

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