In 2004, the Oscars handed 11 trophies, including Best Picture, to the most commercially successful film of the previous year, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. No surprise then, that the ceremony’s TV ratings jumped 30 percent from the previous year, with 43.6 million people tuning in. Viewership has fluctuated since then, but in 2014, it was roughly the same as the year The Lord of the Rings won big. The Best Picture winner in 2014? Twelve Years a Slave, a film that domestically grossed about 85 percent less than The Return of the King. In other words, viewers tune into the Oscars for many reasons, and the relative popularity of the winning films is just one of them.
But that hasn’t stopped pundits from partaking in the typical doomsday talk that accompanies a down year. Sunday’s Oscar telecast attracted 34.3 million viewers, an eight percent decline from last year, though not the lowest on record (2003 and 2008 were worse). Writing in The New York Times, Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply attributed this decline to a loss in black viewership, the host Chris Rock’s apparent lack of fame, the lower profile of the nominated films, and the hypothesis that “soapbox moments to espouse causes—and there were plenty on Sunday—have historically turned off viewers.” Heaven forbid. The “cause” this time was the Academy’s need to diversify its membership, in hopes of avoiding another year with an all-white slate of acting nominees. But bluntly confronting that onstage was necessary, and blaming Rock’s performance for a slight ratings dip is short-sighted.