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Oscar ratings rise despite Seth MacFarlane's reviews

3:16 PM, Feb 25, 2013   |    comments
Seth MacFarlane drew mixed reaction as Oscars host.(Photo: Kevin Winter, Getty Images)
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HOLLYWOOD (USA TODAY) - Host Seth MacFarlane opened the Oscars with We Saw Your Boobs, an original production number that name-checked Hollywood's breast-revealing actresses, several of them in the Dolby Theatre audience. (Never mind that some of them had bared all in rape scenes.)

Many amateur critics were harsh on Twitter, and TV critics were less so. But in the numbers that matter to ABC, viewers turned out in greater numbers to watch the 85th annual awards broadcast Sunday night.

Early Nielsen estimates indicate ratings will be up over last year's 39.3 million viewers. Viewership among the prized young-adult audience in prime time climbed 19% in major markets, though that measurement is imprecise because the show aired live across time zones. Numbers due out later today will adjust for those differences.

Often, the awards ratings depend more heavily on the nominated films than the host. A record 57.3 million tuned in in 1998 to see smash Titanic win best picture as Billy Crystal presided, while the low mark came 10 years later when No Country for Old Men won best picture, 32 million watched, and Jon Stewart hosted, skewering many of the actors in the room.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences knew what it was getting in MacFarlane, 39, the creator of Fox's crude cartoon Family Guy and the director of last year's Ted, about a foul-mouthed teddy bear he also voiced. And MacFarlane himself seemed to recognize the potential danger: He spent several minutes at the top of the show on an extended riff about whether he'd be deemed the "worst host ever."

He veered between old-school crooning (he fancies himself a modern-day Dean Martin) and the edgy humor for which he's known, taking aim at Jews, gays and other celebrities. Twitter was split on a joke about Django Unchained, in which a man rescues his woman from "unspeakable violence ... or, as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie." And there were more.

"When they announced Seth as host, the question was always how they would maintain the level of appropriateness," says Brent Poer, president of Liquid Thread, which produces sponsored content at ad giant Starcom MediaVest. But "what's most important is that he drove social conversation in and around the show by managing to be himself, be quick on his feet and, ultimately, stay within the boundaries, 85% of the time. Plus, he can sell a soft-shoe, song-and-dance number, so he gets extra points there."

And Tom O'Neil, who runs GoldDerby.com, an awards-prediction site, says "MacFarlane ranks among the three best hosts of the past decade. He matched the song-and-dance chops of Hugh Jackman and the snarky stand-up of Billy Crystal. Somewhere, Bob Hope is smiling."

The Los Angeles Times called MacFarlane's hosting stint only "occasionally crude and mildly offensive," but dubbed the show "long, self-indulgent and dull." The Hollywood Reporter, which said MacFarlane is "fearless when skewering pop culture (with) absolutely zero hesitation in crossing line after line of perceived good taste," called the host "relatively tame" by his standards.

And USA TODAY's Robert Bianco said that while the "boobs" song "was meant to represent the kind of 'wild, crazy an tasteless' stunt folks were supposedly afraid the man behind Family Guy might do," it proved, "unfortunately, less wild, crazy or tasteless than it needed to be."

The show clocked in at 3 hours and 35 minutes, historically a typical length that was nonetheless about 20 minutes longer than each of the last two years.

The viewership of the last five Oscars: 2012, 39.3 million viewers (best picture: The Artist); 2011, 37.9 million (The King's Speech); 2010, 41.7 million (The Hurt Locker); 2009, 36.3 million (Slumdog Millionaire); and 2008, 32.0 million (No Country for Old Men).

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