NEW YORK - With comedian Chris Rock, the Academy Awards succeeded in its effort to find a younger audience - but perhaps at the expense of the country as a whole.
A total of 41.5 million viewers tuned in Sunday to watch "Million Dollar Baby" take the Oscar for best picture. That's down 2 million from last year's show, which honored "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," according to Nielsen Media Research.
ABC undoubtedly hoped for better, after preliminary figures released earlier Monday from the top 56 markets were the strongest they were in five years.
The drop in total viewership was an indication that this year's Oscar ceremony was more popular in the big cities than rural areas, more so than an average Academy Awards, said Larry Hyams, vice president of audience analysis and research for ABC.
Oscar ratings were up from last year among viewers aged 18 to 34 - a prime target for the advertisers who pay millions of dollars for time on what is traditionally the year's highest-rated program after the Super Bowl.
Hyams attributed the boost in young viewership to Rock.
"The academy made a concerted effort to go in a different direction and try to appeal to a younger audience with the Academy Awards, and it appears they have succeeded," he said.
It was the 12th time since 1990 that the Academy Awards drew an audience of between 40 and 46 million people, according to Nielsen. The peak during that stretch was the "Titanic" year of 1998 with 55.2 million, and the low point was 33 million in 2003, when "Chicago" won.
Rock said backstage after the Oscars that he hoped to do it again, although "who knows if they would want me again."
He attracted plenty of pre-Oscars publicity, including speculation about whether he would make jokes at the expense of President Bush (he did) or test ABC censors with curse words (he didn't).
"Put it this way, I don't curse in front of my mother," Rock said. "And my mother was front and center, you know, right in my view. So I could never curse in front of Rose Rock, so why would I do it on television?"
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