According to an article by Time, ABC’s airing of the 2020 Academy Awards was watched by the smallest audience in history, reaching only 23.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Now, nearly 24 million may seem like a large number, but this is a 20% decrease from the 2019 Oscars. The 2018 Oscars, which initially held the record for lowest ratings, was 26.5 million. These ratings were a surprise to some who considered this year’s Oscars to be one of many historical and cultural firsts. Parasite became the first-ever foreign language film to win the best picture, the night’s top award. Others felt that the early February airing of the show might be to blame for the low ratings, as it prevented the adequate promotion of the show.
As one journalist put it, “It was too predictable, too white and too boring.” Those who took home some of the night’s top awards were Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, and Brad Pitt, who had also been among the winners and previous awards. This left very few surprises for viewers who anticipated the trend of earlier awards would carry over to the Oscars. Although Parasite’s win was a surprise to some, a large number of viewers had not yet seen the movie, leaving little emotional investment in the film.
This was the second year in a row where the Oscars were without a host, a detail some critics felt was detrimental to viewership numbers. Other critics joked that the broadcast was on “autopilot,” adding the show was “three and a half hours of Hollywood cruising along at 35,000 feet.” The lack of structure and sensible flow made the show feel somewhat disorganized and random. In the past, the Oscars fluctuated between 35-45 million viewers. It was often considered the second most-watched cable program of the year behind, of course, the Super Bowl. As little as five years ago, the show received 37.3 million viewers.
Still, the Motion Picture Academy is not entirely to blame here. Live television has experienced a significant drop in viewership in recent years due to the upsurge in streaming services. With that being said, as streaming services continue to advance and grow in popularity, cable network event producers must consider how this growth may affect the success of their program. Similar award broadcasts, including the Golden Globes and Grammy Awards, also experienced declines in viewership, although neither were as steep as this year’s Oscars.