Numlock Awards: Oscar Ratings

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter.

Tomorrow, we’re going to do the final mailbag of the season and wrap it all up! I’m thrilled with how things went down this year — Best Picture chaos is the only thing we know for certain, at least until the Academy membership stabilizes and we get repeatable data — and I’m delighted at how well the stats have borne out in the acting prizes over the transitional period.

But I wanted to get in one last post that I feel like I’m always too burned out to write but finally got around to this year: Oscar ratings!

Every year, the Oscar ratings are bad. With the occasional, slight outlier, the Oscars have been on a downward march for decades at this point, and this point is loudly emphasized by ABC — which pays to broadcast the ceremony — as a justification to stick their grubby fingers into a perfectly serviceable event.

Maybe they want to cram in a “best popular film” category, maybe they want to exile the smaller prizes like cinematography to a kiddie table ceremony, maybe they want to make Dwayne Johnson hop the stage in a flaming motorcycle while Tom Bergeron of Dancing With The Stars emcees. The mind of network executives is inscrutable.

This is hilarious, because if anything ABC is the thing dragging the Oscar ratings down, not the actual ceremony itself.

Here’s a chart:

That’s the ratings of the Oscar ceremony (blue line), plotted alongside the rating of the top-rated television program on television in that season (red line), and then the rating of the top-rated show on the network that aired the Oscars (yellow line) which has been ABC except for a few NBC airings in the early ’70s.

You’ll observe here that on average, the Oscars have been declining at less of a pace than the networks overall and ABC in particular.

(Download the data here)

Here’s another chart:

(There’s some missing data in the 1980s, hence the gap.) ABC is still pulling in a ton of money for ads, and I don’t have to adjust for inflation to assure you that ABC is doing fine year over year with these numbers.

So, what’s the problem?

The frequent scapegoat is the smaller movies that dominate the awards ceremony — films that aren’t seen by all that many people and as a result have less of a draw for audiences unsure about whether to tune in.

This is crap. I pulled the average domestic box office of the Best Picture nominees since 2010 and checked to see if there was literally any relationship between the Oscars ratings and the box office. (Data from The Numbers)

When I ran the regression, the r-squared — which is a stat that tells us what percent of the variation in the ratings is explained by the variation in the box office — was less than 1 percent. So no, nominating Jumanji is not going to do the job.

But would you like to know what did actually get an interesting r-squared?

When I did the regression looking at the top-rated show of the past 46 television seasons against the ratings of the Oscar ceremony that aired within it, that explained 20 percent of the variation.

And when I did another regression looking at the top-rated show of the past 46 seasons on ABC, and then compared it to the ratings of the Oscar ceremony that aired within it, that explained 27 percent of the variation.

If ABC wants bigger numbers for the Oscars, maybe instead of trying to mess with the Oscars it should try to get better ratings. If they’re genuinely worried that not enough people are seeing the Oscars, the right thing to do isn’t to mess with what works, but rather to give the show to CBS or something.

Remember, you can email us your questions for tomorrow’s mailbag at!