The 10 highest-rated Academy Awards telecasts; ’70 show tops list

Former New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby summed up the 42nd annual Academy Awards ceremony as a show about mortality, symbolized by the toupees worn by Hollywood celebrities whose time had just about passed.

On a night that saw the X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” named Best Picture of 1969, heralding the dawn of a new age in film-making sensibilities, Canby was struck by the rugs worn by Best Actor John Wayne, George Jessel, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire and other luminaries of Hollywood’s Golden Age who attended.

“Even those who showed up in what appeared to be their own hair seemed touched by fraud, by an unwillingness to admit the passage of time,” Canby wrote, singling out the then 66-year-old Cary Grant as looking “curiously fictional.”

Canby also had a brickbat for perennial Oscar host Bob Hope, who was also 66 at that point, calling his monologue “limp.”

“This is the year that [Richard] Burton played a king and a queen,” Hope is quoted as saying. Burton played Henry VIII in “Anne Of the Thousand Days” and one half of a gay couple (the other being Rex Harrison) who own a barbershop in “Staircase.”

The mere possibility that “Midnight Cowboy” could be given the top Oscar must have had much to do with the fact that the Academy Award telecast of April 7, 1970, on ABC, garnered the highest ratings of any since 1960, when Nielsen changed its basic methodology in a way that makes pre-1960 numbers unsuitable for comparison.

The broadcast earned a rating of 43.4, with a 78 share of the television audience, according to Nielsen. In the much different TV world of 2012, last year’s show got a 22.6 rating and 34 share.

Ahead of Sunday night’s broadcast of the 85th Academy Awards, here are the 10 highest-rated Oscar telecasts since 1960:

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Variety’s review of the 1970 show noted that it was one of the longest up to that time, at 2 hours and 25 minutes, with no major award handed out before 10:40 Eastern. The show’s producers filmed a series of interviews with important directors, which the magazine said would be “well and good in a documentary, but in the awards show served merely to delay the proceedings.”

Elizabeth Taylor handed out the Best Picture award to end the night:

Though ABC’s telecast was the top-rated single show of the 1969-70 season, the network finished the 30-week period in its usual position for this era — last.

CBS narrowly claimed its 15th straight win in Nielsen’s full-season network rankings, with a 20.0 rating. It was still bolstered that year by programs with a strong appeal to viewers in rural areas, and people over 50, including “Mayberry R.F.D,” “The Jim Nabors Hour,” “The Red Skelton Hour” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” “Gunsmoke” was in the midst of its late ’60s resurgence, finishing the season as the No. 2 show.

NBC was second at 19.8, with three big guns in “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” (No. 1 for the year), “Bonanza” (No. 3) and “The Wonderful World of Disney” (No. 9). ABC had a 16.4. Only two ABC shows cracked the Top 20: “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “The Johnny Cash Show.”

Aside from a stint on NBC from 1971-1975, the Academy Awards have been shown on ABC in every year since 1961.

— David B. Wilkerson

New York Times film critic Vincent Canby reviews the 42nd Academy Awards, 1970 [subscription required]

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