February 24, 2009
Watching the Oscars

Our research at C3 tends to focus on "new" ways to watch TV. We think about platforms, time-shifting, and online video, but we rarely think about that outmoded concept of turning on the television set and watching what's on.

This Sunday's Academy Awards telecast was an example of that "old" way of watching. An average of 36.2 million viewers tuned in to watch the ceremony in real time. Event television--like the Oscars or the Superbowl--seems to be the one type of programming that still makes sense in terms of staid industry models: advertisers don't have to worry about time-shifting audience missing commercials because live viewers can't scan commercials; there isn't a DVD market because people don't want to see the show again; and audiences similarly don't want to watch the ceremony online after it airs because the (only) joy of watching comes from learning who won. In fact, the Academy offered no online streaming video of the Oscars, so broadcast television was the only way to see the whole show.

Even though viewers couldn't stream the Oscars, there were still opportunities to engage with the show online. Comcast's Fancast portal offered an Oscar live blog with a side bar that allowed users to update their Facebook statuses and view a steady stream of other people's status updates. Twitter users could also contribute to the online conversation by marking tweets with #oscars or #aa09. The New Media Strategies blog compiled Oscar night Twitter data and found that over 24000 tweets were posted about the ceremony and that Slum Dog Millionaire and Sean Penn were the most-tweeted-about film and actor respectively. Celebrities got in on the Twitter action as well, keeping fans informed from the red carpet to the after-parties.

Despite all these ways to engage with Oscar content online, however, ABC still had to make money from the telecast the old fashioned way--through ad sales based on projected viewership. Given the fact that most Oscar viewers watch live, traditional ratings are a more accurate measure than might be the case with a program where streaming, download, or DVR viewing makes up a large portion of the total audience. Ratings for this year's telecast were up 13% after last year's record low, but because of the economy, ad revenue is projected to be significantly lower than last year.

Though not every TV program can be an Event on par with the Academy Awards, viewing patterns for the Oscars are more the exception than the norm: most people still watch TV live on a TV set. A new Nielsen study shows that use of alternative television platforms (online video, mobile video) hasn't decreased the amount of TV people watch on TV sets. In fact, television viewing is at an all-time high in the US with viewers watching an average 151 hours a month. Online TV, mobile TV, and DVR viewing are likewise on the rise. In short, people are watching more TV wherever they can get it.