Why the Super Bowl still matters. . .
. . .and the Oscars no longer do
Center director Jeffrey Cole shares a tale of two TV ratings behemoths.
By Jeffrey Cole
While I was growing up, the two most popular television programs of most years were the Super Bowl in January or February and the Oscars in March or April. By the end of the first quarter of the year, it was all downhill for television ratings.
These were the two shows that amassed enormous and—more importantly—live audiences. Even as VCRs and DVRs came along, you didn’t want to watch the Super Bowl or Oscars later. You had to watch them in the moment, live. Both programs, more than any other, year in and year out, provided fodder for arguments and discussion at the office water cooler the next morning.
The Super Bowl has held up and prospered. The Oscars. . .not so much!
Now, there is only one program that captures the whole nation’s attention at the same time. The Super Bowl is just about the only collective experience the whole country shares.
This year’s game
Last Sunday’s matchup between the Chiefs and the Eagles was watched by 113 million people. It didn’t hurt that it was a great game decided in the last four seconds. But even when it’s not a close or exciting game, the ratings are still monumental.
Sometime in the 1980s, because of the massive live ratings, the Super Bowl became the place to premier the best of new television advertising. Normally, television is content surrounded by advertising. But with the Super Bowl, over the years it became television advertising surrounded by content. Coca-Cola’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” premiered at Super Bowl VI in 1972; likewise, Apple’s “1984” only ran once during Super Bowl XVIII. Both became important parts of the national conversation (for very different reasons).
Today, the biggest brands in the world hire famous directors and major Hollywood stars to appear in original Super Bowl ads. This year, Fox charged an astounding $7 million for each thirty-second ad. For a major advertiser, the cost of making and airing one short ad, one time, could easily come to $15 million. For 30 seconds! At the first Super Bowl in 1967, an ad sold for $37,500 and was seen by an average television audience of about twenty-eight million.
Ten years later in 1977, the average audience increased to sixty-two million before taking a major jump to seventy-eight million the next year. In 2010 the audience size reached about one hundred million; it has stayed at that level ever since. The peak was 114 million in 2015.
More impressive, of the thirty highest rated television programs of all time, twenty-nine are Super Bowl games. The only thing preventing a clean sweep was the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H. Last year, of the top one hundred rated shows on broadcast television, eighty-two were NFL Football games with the Super Bowl at the top.
The broadcast networks are becoming victims of their successful half-century campaign to promote NFL Football (and other sports). Sports is now the only thing that provides what advertisers crave: an enormous live audience.
Throughout the history of the Super Bowl, the bidding on the television rights was a contest between ABC, CBS, NBC, and then Fox in the 1990s. Rupert Murdoch was always willing to spend more than his competitors for “must-see” television. But the Super Bowl was one of the only programs for which all the networks opened their wallets wide and threw budgets out the window.
In 2023, the tech giants are interested in sports and have much bigger wallets. Even with their corporate owners such as Disney or Comcast, the networks cannot compete. YouTube (Google) has the rights to NFL Sunday ticket. Amazon has Thursday Night Football. Apple has moved into Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer.
The days of only being able to watch the Super Bowl on network television are numbered. Already this year, cord cutters could have signed up for a free trial of FuboTV, where the big game streamed. As broadcast and cable networks begin to merge with their streaming cousins (ABC to Disney+ and Hulu, CBS to Paramount+, NBC to Peacock), this trend will become even more pronounced.
The public wants the game and doesn’t care where it is shown.
The Super Bowl grew like a weed since the 1960s, but it is a very different story for the Oscars.
In 2022, the Oscars telecast (on ABC since 1976) had a television audience of 16.6 million—up from an all-time low of 10.5 million the year before in the middle of the pandemic.
It wasn’t always this way.
The Oscars’ ratings began to slip, and then entered free fall, as the nominees and winners of the big awards no longer reflected box office favorites. It started to feel like the more successful a film was with moviegoers, the less well it performed at the Oscars.
Of the thirty highest rated television programs of all time, twenty-nine are Super Bowl games. The only thing preventing a clean sweep was the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H. Last year, of the top one hundred rated shows on broadcast television, eighty-two were NFL Football games with the Super Bowl at the top. The broadcast networks are becoming victims of their successful half-century campaign to promote NFL Football (and other sports). Sports is now the only thing that provides what advertisers crave: an enormous live audience.
In the 1970s, Best Picture Awards went to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, The French Connection, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Sting, and Rocky. In the past ten years, reflecting different sensibilities, winners have included Nomadland, Moonlight, and Birdman.
The Hurt Locker, which won best picture in 2010, had the distinction of having the lowest box-office gross of any best picture winner ever. It’s $17 million take meant that it was seen in theaters (using 2010 average ticket prices) by a little over two million people.
The best Oscar ratings over the past 25 years have been when films with high box-office success were nominated and won. The highest rated Oscar broadcast of all time was in 1998 (58 million) when Titanic won the top award.
If fans could not see the films they loved celebrated at the Academy Awards, then the only reason to watch was to see how their favorite stars dressed. Some watched the red carpet and turned the channel when the show started! That quickly grew old. Plus, those interested in wardrobe could watch the Emmys, Grammy, or other shows. The ratings for those award shows (and all award shows) have suffered just like the Oscars.
The Oscars ratings disaster is a crisis for broadcast television. First, the Oscars was one of the signature events for the networks. Until the Super Bowl entered warp speed, it was the highest rated program of the year. Middle class (not just Hollywood) households adjusted their schedules to accommodate watching the Oscars. Now the show is often not even the most successful program of the week. The magic that the networks could deliver—great programming that everyone wanted to watch at the same time—is gone, never to return.
Ratings for the Oscar telecast are also a fiasco for both the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (The Academy) and ABC, the network that has run the show since 1961 (except for a brief period on NBC). Over the years, ABC has paid the Academy far more for the Oscars than the show is worth. Today the license fee is around $100 million. They have overpaid knowingly because of the uniqueness of the show, which formerly aggregated a large and prestigious live audience. That buzz is gone.
The ABC contract for the Oscars runs through 2028. Until the opening of the Museum of Motion Pictures last year, the Oscar telecast accounted for a vast majority of the Academy’s revenues. It will never command a $100 million annual payment for the awards again. That is one of the reasons the Academy built the museum.
The Oscars as a television program will soon be vastly scaled down and turned into a niche program like the Tonys, or it will move to a streamer willing to carry it for whatever prestige it may have left.
The series finale of M*A*S*H is the only regular, non-live television program in the top thirty programs of all time. In the forty years since, no episode of any show has come close. The Oscars are a shell of what they used to be: a resurrection is not in the cards.
The Super Bowl is the only program that commands the nation’s attention for the same three hours. It has grown and prospered so much that network television will soon no longer be able to afford it.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
See all columns from the center.
February 15, 2023