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TV's winning season

From the Olympics to award shows, why ratings for event television are booming

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For as long as anyone can remember, broadcast-network executives have been in a panic over declining ratings and the prospect of viewers turning to cable — or, even worse, living without TV. Now it looks like they’ve finally stumbled on a solution: Just hand out more trophies.

Ratings for awards shows and big events are way up this year. It started with the Emmys last September, which rose 9 percent from the previous year, and stretched to the World Series on Fox (averaging 19.4 million, it was the most watched Fall Classic in five years). Recording-industry events like the Country Music Awards (up 7 percent) and the American Music Awards (up 17 percent), both in November, kept the momentum going into January, when the People’s Choice Awards and the Grammys saw substantial growth (up 15 percent and 36 percent, respectively). NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics got off to a golden start, with 129 million people watching the first four days. But the whopper was the record set by this month’s Super Bowl: With 106.5 million viewers, it was the most watched television program ever. (Suck it, M*A*S*H finale!) With lots of statues still waiting to be handed out — from the Oscars on March 7 to the Academy of Country Music Awards in April — the Big Four are likely looking at more ratings windfalls. Predicts Bill Carroll, director of programming for media-buying firm Katz Media Group, ”I would be very surprised if this isn’t a record year for the Academy Awards.” That’s certainly the goal over at ABC; the network is hoping the combination of 10 Best Picture nominees and hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin will lure viewers. ”To see popular movies like The Blind Side and District 9 nominated for Best Picture will definitely expand interest in the show,” boasts one Oscar insider, who doesn’t want to jinx ABC’s ratings chances by speaking for attribution (chicken!).

So why are the ratings gods bestowing these gifts on the networks now? Credit goes to a variety of sources: the tough economy and a particularly harsh winter in many parts of the country, both of which have kept people home, and fans who want to enjoy sporting and red-carpet events on their newly purchased high-def TVs. And in fairness, the networks have also just lucked out; this year’s ceremonies have been packed with moments tailor-made for tweeters and Facebook posters — whether shocking (Sandra Bullock planting one on Meryl Streep at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards), unexpected (the New Orleans Saints winning their first Super Bowl), or choreographed (see: Pink, spinning half-naked from the ceiling at the Grammys).

”Event TV needs to be driven by those kinds of moments that you don’t see everywhere,” explains Jack Sussman, CBS’ head of specials. ”When you marry the uniqueness of an event with the power of the social-networking world to promote it, and then put it through the pipeline that is broadcast-network TV, you have an opportunity to reach the masses.” In other words: Alec and Steve, pucker up!

Most-Watched Award Shows
(1) 1998 Academy Awards
55.2 million viewers*
Big winner: Titanic

(2) 1995 Academy Awards
48.2 million
Big winner: Forrest Gump

(3) 2000 Academy Awards
46.3 million
Big winner: American Beauty

(4) 1993 Academy Awards
45.7 million
Big winner: Unforgiven

(5) 1999 Academy Awards
45.6 million
Big winners: Shakespeare in Love, Saving Private Ryan

(6) 1994 Academy Awards
45.1 million
Big winner: Schindler’s List

(7) 1996 Academy Awards
44.9 million
Big winner: Braveheart

(8) 1992 Academy Awards
44.4 million
Big winner: The Silence of the Lambs

(9) 2004 Academy Awards
43.5 million
Big winner: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

(10) 2001 Academy Awards
42.9 million
Big winner: Gladiator

*Excluding broadcasts prior to 1987, the year Nielsen began people meter measurements