LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Films about psychopaths, greedy oilmen and corrupt lawyers failed to click with moviegoers, and they proved a turnoff to U.S. television viewers as this year's Oscars show hit record low ratings.
The 80th anniversary edition of the Academy Awards, dominated by European stars and films that played poorly at the box office, averaged 32 million viewers, entering the record books on Monday as the least watched Oscar telecast ever.
The national viewer tally reported by Nielsen Media Research for ABC's live, three-hour-plus telecast on Sunday was down about 1 million viewers from the previous record low, set in 2003 when the Oscars were presented just after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had begun.
The 2003 program was hosted by Steve Martin and featured the musical "Chicago" as best picture.
Sunday's broadcast, with comedian Jon Stewart making his second appearance as Oscar host, now ranks as the smallest U.S. TV audience for the Oscars since 1974, when actual viewer totals first became available.
The household rating, 18.7, also marks the lowest level by that measure going back to the first televised Oscars in 1953.
By contrast, the most watched Oscar broadcast on record was the 1998 show, when the box-office blockbuster "Titanic" sailed off with a record-tying 11 awards, including the prize for best picture. Some 55 million Americans tuned in that year.
Even that figure pales in comparison to the audience that tunes in annually to the National Football League championship Super Bowl game, which this year drew 97.5 million viewers.
"American Idol," the most popular U.S. series, averages 30 million viewers a week with its Tuesday night broadcast. It debuted this season with 33.5 million.
LOW RATINGS, NO SURPRISE
The weak ratings for Sunday's Oscar broadcast came as no surprise given that many movies showcased this year -- "There Will Be Blood," "Michael Clayton," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," -- generated little enthusiasm among moviegoers despite critical raves.
The night's big winner, the grim, violent crime drama "No Country For Old Men," which claimed four awards including best picture and best drama, grossed a modest $64 million at the North American box office.
Only one movie among the five nominated for best picture, breakout comedy "Juno," crossed the $100 million box office market domestically. That film managed just one win for best original screenplay.
The Oscar ratings likely also suffered from the fact that all four acting awards this year went to European performers whose names are fairly obscure for American audiences and who appeared in movies that relatively few moviegoers saw.
The Oscars generally have drawn a bigger U.S. television audience in years when the big crowd pleasers at the multiplex, like "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," figured prominently in the awards race.
Oscar producers already were bracing for low ratings due to an overall viewership slump in network TV this broadcast season, exacerbated by a glut of reruns and reality shows triggered by the recently settled Hollywood writers strike.
Still, the Academy Awards show ranks as the year's highest-rated entertainment special and a cash cow for Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, which raked in an average of $1.8 million for each 30-second spot, up 7 percent from a year ago.