Bringing Numbers to a Slap Fight: Even More Oscar Thoughts

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Normally, I’d tell you that awards shows don’t matter. The Emmys? The Grammys? The Golden Globe? (May they rest in peace…?) When it comes to business strategy, they don’t really matter

Frankly, it’s fun to find out who wins or loses awards, but rarely impacts actual business strategy.

But if you’re writing a business strategy column, you’d be hard pressed to find any other stories to write about! So for the fourth time this Oscar season, I’m writing about the Academy Awards. Because the question on everyone’s mind: “How many people watched?!?!?” got answered. 

(Though the answer may not be what it seems…)

Most Important Story of the Week – The Oscars Ratings Go Up

As I wrote a few times, having more popular films nominated for the Best Picture awards leads to (roughly) higher ratings. And yep, the headline is the Academy Award ratings were up. I predicted 16.28 million, and they got to 15.4 in the “live adjusted” numbers. This was later boosted to 16.6 million viewers watching live or the same day. 

Here’s my popularity to ratings chart:

Yes, the correlation isn’t perfect, but it’s there. And arguably if we adjusted “popular” up to account for inflation, the films would look even more unpopular recently. (I also cut the chart off at 1997 when Titanic won and the Oscars had their highest ratings of all time. So that would make the connection even tighter.)

Now, as others have worried, could this just be the “dead cat bounce”, where the ratings saw a one year pick up, but then will continue their precipitous decline next year? Maybe. A lot of it depends on the films the Academy selects to compete for the top prize. Even this year the Academy left a ton of interest “on the table” by not nominating Encanto or Spider-Man 3: Into the Profitverse for Best Picture. If they had nominated either or both of those films, I think they would have seen an even bigger leap in the ratings. (A simulcast on Hulu wouldn’t hurt either.)

As much as I’m happy to say “called it” on my prediction, frankly, I don’t think it matters. Parsing the data yesterday, I came to a much bigger conclusion: 

I don’t trust this data.

We May Be Over-Exaggerating The Decline in Oscar Ratings

Midway through Monday morning, I went to Deadline to see if they had the Oscar viewership numbers. They did! And that’s where I got the 15.4 million number. They also included this past list, which most other websites copy:

As of Monday morning, Deadline noted that the number didn’t include out-of-home viewing. Huh. In the past, I’ve seen estimates that out of home boosts ratings from 5-10% for sporting events.

But then I thought, “Wait, if these don’t include out-of-home, what else don’t they include?” Surely the article I’m reading will do me the basic courtesy of telling me how the numbers were calculated, right? Nope. I had to go over to Rick Porter at THR (probably the best linear TV ratings person I read) and his description:

According to Porter, a lot of potential viewing was ignored, including virtual MVPDs, delayed viewing, out of home, and even viewing over the next three days. In fact, by Tuesday morning, another batch of Nielsen numbers were out, this time with “Live+Same Day” viewership, boosting the total to 16.6 viewers on average over the course of the broadcast. 

This, though, just begs the question: 

Are any of these numbers—the Deadline ones in particular, which are the same as on Wikipedia, which most journalists use—all the same numbers? 

I don’t know for certain. (And believe me, both my researcher and I desperately tried to find out.) And this violates my data principle to always provide the “5Ws” of data, meaning what data was collected and what was measured and where and over what time period. If those numbers are all live, that’s a different picture than live plus same day viewing. Do all those numbers include virtual MVPD viewing? Out-of-home? And how many folks watch these awards shows on delay? These shows are three plus hours long…that’s a lot to get to in one night.

And I think this really matters. The perception of the sinking of Oscar ratings is taken as absolute fact and gospel. And I, too, think the ratings have shrunk. No doubt. Not to pick on them, but look at all these two Axios charts:

Imagine if we add in delayed viewing? Or ensured all were live+same day viewership? Does the picture change? Potentially. Enough to overcome a 50% drop in viewership? No, absolutely not. But the picture may not be as dire as it seems. 

This is a good example of why “apples-to-apples” is such a tricky statistical concept. In this case, linear viewership is the same number over time, so it is “apples-to-apples”. On the other hand, if you’re trying to understand how many people are actually interested in the Oscars, in today’s day-and-age of on-demand and appointment viewing, live viewership doesn’t make sense either. 

Do the Oscars have fundamental issues? They do. But is the fact that our metrics can’t keep pace with changing technology also skewing the picture? Most likely yes.

(Samba TV has also released Live TV ratings for the Oscars, and their numbers are households—not viewers—but they saw a bump from 7 million households for the 2021 telecast to 10 million for the 2020 telecast. Again, this may increase with live+same day numbers.)

For a “Dead” Show, the Oscars are Popular

Everyone here probably reads my Streaming Ratings Report, so you know about my “forty million” hour club for streaming, an unofficial “club” for really popular shows. Did The Oscars make it?


The math: 16.6 million hours times 3.5 hour run time is 58.1 total hours. In one day. 

Since May of 2020, no streaming series has generated more total hours in a single week than this one broadcast did in one day. And definitely no film has had this much viewership. Plus, using the “follow the money” principle, ABC announced they sold all their ad-inventory at around $1.7 million a pop. The Oscars may not be as popular as they once were—they are not, that is true—but they’re not “dead” either.

The caveat? In percentage terms, at its peak, the Oscars had 20% of Americans tune in and that’s down to 5%. So the decline in interest is real, but still its one of the most popular things out there for a single night.

How to Fix the Oscars

I love the Oscars and want them to do well. At its core, I think it is a competition, and folks love competitions. 

Thus the biggest driver of success will be the type of films the Academy nominates. The more films Americans have seen, the more films they will be able to root for. Talking to people who don’t watch, the number one reasons is “I haven’t seen any of these films.” Any amount of customer surveys will back that up.

So I’ll repeat my changes to the Oscars. First off, the Academy must keep nominating ten films per year. Those last few films that make it on the slate tend to be more popular.

Second, the Academy shouldn’t split the awards into popular films versus best picture. That dilutes the value. For example, the Academy has had “animated feature “as its own category  for years, but that basically serves to keep the best animated titles out of the Best Picture race. (And doesn’t really help with viewership.) That hurts films like Encanto, which are both good and extremely popular. My recommendation is that the awards body votes on five films, then a committee nominates five genre/popular films that are still worthy for the rest of the slots.

Third, the Oscars need to figure out how to get these awards on streaming as well. With the current volume of cord cutting, going exclusively to one streamer (Netflix or Prime Video for example) would sink the ratings even lower. And Disney/ABC has the rights until 2028. So that’s not happening. But Disney is in a tough spot with the ratings as they are. Disney needs to insist that Hulu and/or Disney+ get streaming rights as well, without paying more…until the ratings rebound.

Fourth, more Oscar films need both theatrical releases (to build awareness) and streaming (to allow for catch up). Given that CODA won, but hardly anyone saw it, and given that each of the Oscar films seem to be having a good second life on streaming, film distribution strategies need to take advantage of both windows.

The model, in my mind, is Searchlight’s distribution plan in 2021. For their three biggest Oscar films, each had a theatrical run followed by a streaming/Pay-1 debut in February (Nightmare Alley, The French Dispatch and The Eyes of Tammy Faye.) Personally, I think it maximizes revenue and awareness. (Of course, they’re now releasing a few films straight-to-Hulu so we’ll see if even they make the right decision in 2022.)

Best Takes I Read

I enjoyed Richard Rushfield’s post-Oscars take, as usual, and though he’s more pessimistic than me. I also liked this take by Tony Pierce on how to improve the Oscars. I wouldn’t move it to three nights, but the Hollywood Bowl concert feels like an absolute no brainer. This article by Numlock Awards on how the Academy has expanded its voting body is fascinating, and makes you wonder if having more documentarians voting on Best Picture really is the smartest approach.

I’ve seen a few other data analytics firms provide their takes on which films were the most popular among the Oscar contenders as well. A few only compared the films to each other, and in those analysis (by TV Time, Just Watch and Parrot Analytics), either Dune, Don’t Look Up or Nightmare Alley is the winner. Though Coda will see a surge in interest after its win and consequent surge in earned media, as Parasite saw last year. 

The LA Times probably has the best new set of data, featured in their great newsletter using customer polling by ASI/Screen Engine for how many folks have seen which Oscar films. (Unfortunately, they changed definitions for survey takers so we can’t compare 2021 to 2020.)

Caution: I Don’t EVER Use “Winner” as an Output/Conclusion

Now onto my least favorite part of the night, the inevitable rush to divine a narrative from the show or film that won the top prize that night. 

So last night, Apple won their first Oscar, and Netflix didn’t. Folks will/have rush/rushed to opine that this has some impact on the strategy of the streaming wars.


Has Apple proven their creative chops by winning this one award? No. They happened to buy the right Sundance film this year. Amazon tried this strategy for years with very little to show for it. In fact, if Apple had released CODA in theaters, I think CODA would have been both popular and an Oscar winner! If anything, this speaks poorly to their strategy. They had a film this good and didn’t get more people to see it?

Flip to Netflix. Does this loss mean Netflix’s strategy is now “unsound”? Not much more than before the show! I’ve long thought they overspend for films that most years aren’t very popular for their service simply to try to win this award. This doesn’t really change that. 

Basically, this is a raw numbers issue. If you have ten nominees for an award, but only one winner, the “winner” category is an order of magnitude smaller. And a sample size of a handful is no sample size at all.

Oh…That Other Thing

Did I really not mention it? I guess I didn’t.

Here’s what I’d say. If I’m HBO, I offer Chris Rock $50 million to do a stand-up special four weeks from now. The ratings would be off the charts. (Why not Netflix? They could too, but HBO needs subscribers more so should offer more.) 

Oh and the Academy should also invite Chris Rock back to host. That virtually guarantees ratings. (Though I thought the hosts this year did very well as well.)

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.


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