The Academy Awards (now The Oscars) expanded the number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 this year in hopes of reviving the show's declining TV ratings. That still may have an effect in future years, but I'd attribute any increase in this year's ratings to the force of nature that has been Avatar.
The Academy Awards is still one of the biggest ratings events in television, and its ratings held up far better than most long running events until the turn of the 21st century. But a variety of changes in the last 10 years seem to have taken their toll, including shifting the broadcast from Monday at 9pm to Sunday at 8:30pm in 1999. 2008's show during the TV writers strike, at just over 32 million viewers, was the least viewed ever. Viewership did pick up a bit last year, but was still very low on an historical basis.
Considering the Academy Awards viewership peak was the last time James Cameron made a movie (Titanic, also the top grossing of all time, at the time), I'd be stunned if we didn't see an increase in the ratings this year. Forty million average viewers would not surprise me at all, but above 45 million would.
Academy Awards TV Ratings Data, 1953-2009:
|Year||Net||HH||HH Share||Homes (million)||Viewers (million)||Best Picture||$/ 30 sec. ad|
|2008||ABC||18.7||29.0||21.073||32.006||No Country For Old Men||$1,820,000|
|2005||ABC||25.4||38.0||27.876||42.139||Million Dollar Baby||$1,503,000|
|2004||ABC||26.0||40.0||28.212||43.531||Lord of the Rings: Return of the King||$1,503,100|
|2002||ABC||25.4||42.0||26.832||41.782||A Beautiful Mind||$1,290,000|
|1999||ABC||28.6||46.0||28.466||45.615||Shakespeare in Love||$1,000,000|
|1997||ABC||27.4||46.0||26.531||40.075||The English Patient||$850,000|
|1992||ABC||29.8||50.0||27.446||44.406||The Silence ofthe Lambs|
|1991||ABC||28.4||48.0||26.440||42.727||Dances With Wolves|
|1990||ABC||27.9||48.0||25.700||40.375||Driving Ms. Daisy||$450,000|
|1986||ABC||27.3||43.0||23.450||37.757||Out of Africa||$320,000|
|1984||ABC||30.3||50.0||25.390||42.051||Terms of Endearment||$275,000|
|1982||ABC||33.6||53.0||27.384||46.245||Chariots of Fire|
|1980||ABC||33.7||55.0||25.713||48.978||Kramer vs. Kramer|
|1976||ABC||35.5||64.0||24.710||46.751||One... Coockoo's Nest|
|1972||NBC||38.7||70.0||24.030||The French Connection|
|1968||ABC||34.4||67.3||19.260||In the Heat of the Night|
|1967||ABC||41.2||74.9||22.620||A Man for All Seasons|
|1966||ABC||The Sound of Music|
|1965||ABC||37.4||69.3||19.670||My Fair Lady|
|1963||ABC||37.2||71.0||18.526||Lawrence of Arabia|
|1962||ABC||37.1||75.4||18.179||West Side Story|
|1958||NBC||46.3||78.2||19.210||The Bridge onKwai|
|1957||NBC||37.3||69.2||14.187||Around The World In 80 Days|
|1955||NBC||45.0||57.0||18.785||On the Waterfront|
|1954||NBC||55.0||82.0||14.953||From Here To Eternity|
|1953||NBC||49.7||82.0||10.912||The Greatest Show On Earth|
*2006-2009 results are Live+SD, all previous years are Live viewing.
Nielsen Ratings Data: ©2010 Nielsen Media Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Edit: nielsenwire is out with a pre-Oscar post today. It included this nice chart (and Robert knows I'm a sucker for nice charts) with some comparisons of other recent awards shows. It also had some analysis on minority viewing compared with the nominated movies that you might want to check out.