Crash beating Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture was an upset. The Oscar telecast ratings shrinking was not.
As expected, a nominee slate of modestly popular movies drew modest numbers. The Jon Stewart-hosted show averaged an estimated 38.8 million viewers, per Nielsen Media Research, down 8 percent from last year. The ratings decline jibed with movie attendance, which was down 7 percent in 2005.
Preferring its glass half full, ABC pointed out that a more impressive sounding 76.6 million watched at least six minutes of the 213-minute marathon.
Overall, the stats reveal Sunday's telecast avoided a 2003 disaster, when a record-low 33 million celebrated Chicago's big night, and fell in line with Oscar's 1985-87 rut, when shows honoring Amadeus, Out of Africa and Platoon--not a popcorn movie in the popper--averaged 38 million.
Regarding a potentially more pressing concern, the 2006 Oscars might have scored just enough viewers to maintain the show's annual title as TV's biggest event not known as the Super Bowl. To date, the most watched American Idol finale ever drew 34.2 million in 2003.
Where Stewart is concerned, Sunday's numbers were the lowest for a first-time solo host since Jack Lemmon got the gig in 1985. The actor, a two-time Oscar winner, was not invited back.
In newspapers such as Variety and the Los Angeles Times, however, critics suggested Stewart would be invited back.
"As the night wore on, he got more comfortable, and reverted back to his kind of humor," Variety's Ted Johnson wrote. "He need not worry. He could do another outing."
On the whole, Stewart's and Oscar's notices ranged from okay to "a butt-ugly broadcast that even the biggest film buff had to gag through." (That last one, per a widely disseminated pan on Nikki Finke's LAWeekly.com blog.)
The New York Times, echoing Variety, thought Stewart looked "a little nervous." The Associated Press, echoing the New York Times, thought Stewart is usually funnier on The Daily Show. Most everyone, Brokeback director Ang Lee included, thought the montage looking back at the cowboy movie's secret gay history was funny. ("Quite genius," raved an otherwise downcast Lee on Sunday night.)
The controversy count was low. According to ABC, its censors went to work just twice, briefly dropping out the audio during the live performance of the Oscar-winning composition, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," and briefly dropping out the audio again during Three 6 Mafia's exuberant Jesus-, Gil Cates- and George Clooney-praising acceptance speech.
Backstage, Jordan Houston, aka Juicy J, of Three 6 Mafia was unaware of the deletions. He told reporters the group changed its lyrics "completely" to accommodate the network, if not his elders. ("My mom is watching," Houston said. "I don't want any cuss words.")
And while ABC signed off on the use of "bitches," the group decided on its own to go with "witches" on show night. The audio deletion apparently concerned an unscripted spoken word at the beginning of the performance that the censor thought sounded like a no-no.
What might have sounded like a no-no, but wasn't, per ABC, was actress Taraji P. Henson's "Pimp"-sung chorus. While the ear might have heard Henson repeatedly complaining of "witches talking sh-t," ABC said she was actually bemoaning "witches jumping ship."