Good news for ABC: Sunday's Oscar ceremony set a record.

The bad news: It wasn't quite the milestone the Alphabet network was hoping for.

Not only was the show the longest Oscar telecast in Academy Awards history (officially clocking in at four hours and 16 minutes), it was also the lowest rated.

The Oscarcast scored a 25.4 rating, down from 2001's previous record low, 26.2, according to final figures released Monday afternoon by Nielsen Media Research.

In terms of audience, 41.8 million people tuned in to watch A Beautiful Mind win Best Picture and Halle and Denzel make some history of their own. That's down from 42.9 million last year.

While the ratings number is the lowest in history, the viewership figure for the 74th annual ceremony was a notch above 1997--still the worst of the past decade--when 40.1 million viewers watched The English Patient win Best Picture. (The reason the rating was smaller this year even though the audience was larger is because there are more TV homes now than in 1997.)

The most-watched Academy Awards telecast remains 1998's Titanic victory, which averaged 55.2 million viewers.

The final numbers were significanly lower than the preliminary figures released earlier in the day. The initial tallies, based on Nielsen returns from the 53 largest markets, indicated the 2002 Oscars were actually up 3 percent over last year, with some 46 million viewers. But when the rest of the country was factored in, the ratings dipped.

Unofficially, ABC estimates that 77 million people watched all or part of Sunday's glitz fest. (Whether they stayed awake is another matter.)

Despite the marathon length and sinking Nielsens, several cranky TV critics were surprisingly positive about how it all went down. Returning host Whoopi Goldberg scored generally favorable reviews for her wisecracking work (except for those stale Anna Nicole Smith and Hugh Grant jabs).

"I'd like to thank producer Laura Ziskin and the Academy for the best Oscar telecast this TV watcher can remember," raved John Levesque of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "From Tom Cruise's sensitive salutation and Nora Ephron's tribute to New York--the first Oscar tribute I ever wanted to run longer than it did--it was clear the 74th Academy Awards ceremony was something special: fresh, crisp, different from its predecessors."

But others wondered whether producer Laura Ziskin overwhelmed Oscar with tributes.

"It was the first time both best-acting Oscars went to African Americans...yet viewers had to fight hours and hours of boredom to care," writes Sacramento Bee critic Rick Kushman, noting that he grew weary of all the tributes to movie scores, documentaries and New York films. "All that was missing was a tribute to tributes."

Here's the rest of Oscar's critical post-mortem:

Sunday's Oscars "were intensely narcissistic and characteristically, almost unrelievedly, dull," sniffs USA Today's Robert Bianco. Cruise, in his opening remarks about movies after September 11, delivered "one of the most hilariously pretentious speeches in Oscar history," he said.
The San Jose Mercury News says "The show had a pace, a rhythm that past telecasts did not. And it had some truly significant drama" with Halle Berry's win for Best Actress and Denzel Washington's win for Best Actor.
"TV's most-watched slug crawled back into town last night," wrote the Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert. "As usual, the technical awards formed a Bermuda triangle in the middle of the show, and the film-clip fests and production numbers numbed our brains. Cirque du Soleil is spectacular, but could we take a rain check?"
The New York Post's Adam Buckman begrudgingly admitted that "I had enjoyed many highlights, including the appearance of Woody Allen, on hand to introduce the New York clip job and a surprise attendee who is famous for his aversion to attending the Oscars, even when he's nominated.

"In fact, he added, "I even enjoyed the New York tribute and the documentary montage despite the knowledge that I was being shamelessly manipulated." Hooray for Hollywood.

(Originally published at 12 p.m. PT.)

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