Viewers are poised to flock to Oscarcast this year

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 6, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) — The Academy Awards have a tiresome habit of calling the annual Oscar telecast “Hollywood’s biggest night.”

This year the Oscarcast could prove to be a pretty big night for television, too.

The economy may be wheezing, but advertising time on ABC’s Academy Awards shindig (Sunday at 8:30 p.m. EST) is sold out, with the price tag reportedly $1.5 million per 30-second spot, up from less than $1 million last year.

And even in an era defined by eroding TV viewership, several promising signs — including the David-and-Goliath battle between “Hurt Locker” and “Avatar” — suggest Oscar could regain a measure of its past ratings glory.

Last year, the Oscarcast attracted 36.3 million viewers, with dark horse hit “Slumdog Millionaire” crowned best picture. In 2008, the audience, by Oscar standards, was even paltrier — just 32 million, as the not-for-everyone drama “No Country for Old Men” claimed the big prize.

But roll back the clock to 1998, when titanic interest surrounding “Titanic” helped bring an all-time-record of more than 55 million viewers to the show.

No big surprise — Oscar audiences are larger when a leading contender also happens to be a worldwide box-office phenomenon, and “Titanic” (with its dreamboat leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio) was a doozie.

“Titanic” brought the broadcast added suspense too: Would Oscar give its blessing to a hugely overbudget adventure-history-romance with more bombast than artistry that rose from near-disaster to be moviedom’s biggest and arguably most unlikely smash?

Everybody knows the answer to that — director James Cameron emerged that night as Oscar’s King of the World. And now, this year, most everybody knows that Cameron is back and has potentially topped himself with the 3-D sci-fi epic “Avatar.”

Even better, his ex-wife — the acclaimed director Kathryn Bigelow — is going toe-to-toe with Cameron in both the Best Director and Best Picture categories for her gritty, nowhere-near-big-budget military masterpiece, “The Hurt Locker.”

This sort of faceoff has sporting interest at almost every level: art vs. spectacle, realism vs. fantasy, woman vs. man in an industry where no woman has ever won the best director prize, plus dueling ex-spouses. Who could fail to be caught up in that multifaceted bout?

Most of the other major awards seem, well, a little predictable, leaving the suspense to the final minutes of the hours-long Oscar extravaganza. But who can quibble, with such nominees as Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep, George Clooney and other faves guaranteeing the viewer prime star-gazing along the way, win or lose?

There’s even more to put a smile on Oscar’s deadpan face.