Preliminary overnight numbers for the Oscars show an 18.9 rating in prime time, down 16% vs. 2017’s 22.4 rating. The overnight rating is a new record low for the Oscars, and importantly continues the dismal showing for 2018’s marquee TV events: Golden Globes (-5% vs. 2017), Super Bowl (-7% vs. 2017, worst in 9 years), Olympics (-7% vs. 2014, worst ever) and Grammys (-24% vs. 2017, worst in 9 years). Clearly TV’s biggest events are losing their luster.
There are always challenges particular to each event (e.g. Olympics time zone issues, Patriots fatigue, etc.). In the case of the Oscars, an ongoing problem is the disconnect between best picture winners and box office performance. A fascinating WSJ article on Friday detailed how only 4 best picture winners in the past 12 years have been among their year’s 25 highest-grossing movies, with none cracking the top 15. In the current era of superheroes, animation and franchise movies, thoughtful best picture nominees simply don’t draw the biggest audiences, in turn diminishing the Oscars’ relevance (2018 could be a quasi-exception with “Black Panther”).
Sliding viewership for TV events is part of a larger pattern of audiences spending their time outside of linear TV. The point was brought home just last week, which marked the 35th anniversary of the most-watched scripted TV episode ever, the finale of “M*A*S*H” which drew over 106 million viewers. In 2017, the most viewed scripted TV episode was “The Big Bang Theory” on September 25th, which had 17.7 million viewers (and was number 28 on the list, following sports and awards shows).
It’s an old story that TV audiences are splintering, but what’s becoming clearer is that even the most marquee sporting events and awards shows are now also losing viewers (remember NFL viewing was down 9.7% in the 2017 regular season as well).
A key part of the splintering is the rise of SVOD, plus the revitalization of premium ad-free TV networks like HBO and Showtime due to over-the-top delivery. Consider the following questions:
Last night, how many past years’ Oscar viewers instead tuned into one of Netflix’s burgeoning trove of originals (which will number approximately 700 in 2018) to watch ad-free? Today, Netflix stock hit another all-time high.
How many past viewers were glued to the 4th episode of season 7 of “Homeland” on Showtime, perhaps having tacked on a subscription easily via Amazon Channels and watching on a Roku?
How many didn’t watch because they’re part of the record number of households that have cut the cord?
And how many didn’t watch because they’re sick of the glut of ads they know will be included in the Oscar broadcast, a larger industry problem only belatedly being addressed by NBCUniversal and others?
Add it all up and it’s not surprising that awards shows, marquee sports and all of linear TV are suffering from viewer declines. For the industry, the biggest question is, can anything reverse these trends?