The Oscars pulled in an audience of 32.9 million people Sunday night, down about 4 percent from the 34.4 million who watched last year’s ceremony.

Down or not, that’s a lot of people — it’s second only to the Super Bowl in terms of viewership so far this year. But that figure doesn’t measure the entire show — the way the Nielsen ratings are designed, it flat excludes however many people were watching when the show ended in confusion over the winner of Best Picture (first mistakenly announced as “La La Land” and later corrected to actual winner “Moonlight”).

That’s due in part to a technicality in ratings measurement for live events, but also to the purpose of the ratings themselves. This site wouldn’t exist without them, and the numbers’ meaning is a perennial source of debate and worry for shows on the bubble for renewal. But the Nielsen ratings’ reason for existing is to tell TV networks how many people are watching the commercials they run.

An episode of “The Big Bang Theory” or “The Walking Dead” has a fixed running time, and its Nielsen ratings are a measure of the average audience for the whole show. The calculation is somewhat different for live telecasts like the Oscars, the Super Bowl or the Grammy Awards.

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For live events whose run times are open-ended, Nielsen measures the audience from the start of the broadcast to the end of the last national commercial spot. In a lot of cases, the difference between the last ad and the end of the game or awards show might only be a couple of minutes — and doesn’t often include the moment that dominates conversation the day after.

Sunday’s Oscars, however, had both a significantly longer full running time (about 16 minutes past the final national ad at 12:03 a.m. ET) and an unprecedented mixup in the announcement of the night’s biggest award.

A couple of sizable caveats apply here: Shows like the Oscars tend lose audience as the night gets later. Sunday’s ceremony was the longest in 10 years (and the least-watched in nine), so those extra 16 minutes could have brought the average audience down a bit, even as the shock over the “Moonlight” mix-up likely sent a few people scrambling back to their TVs.

Second, any change in the numbers from adding those 16 minutes onto the average would likely be small. In a show with a running time of 3 hours, 49 minutes, 16 minutes represents only 7 percent of the show.

Below are the Oscar ratings from this decade. Sunday’s declines continue a three-year slump since the highs of 2014.

Year Host Best Picture winner Viewers (millions) 18-49 rating
2010 Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin The Hurt Locker 41.7 12.7
2011 Anne Hathaway, James Franco The King’s Speech 37.92 11.8
2012 Billy Crystal The Artist 39.46 11.7
2013 Seth MacFarlane Argo 40.38 13.0
2014 Ellen DeGeneres 12 Years a Slave 43.74 13.1
2015 Neil Patrick Harris Birdman 37.26 11.0
2016 Chris Rock Spotlight 34.42 10.5
2017 Jimmy Kimmel Moonlight 32.9 9.1

Source: The Nielsen Company.

Posted by:Rick Porter

Rick Porter has been covering TV since the days when networks sent screeners on VHS, one of which was a teaser for the first season of "American Idol." He's left-handed, makes a very solid grilled cheese and has been editor of TV by the Numbers since October 2015. He lives in Austin.

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