#OscarsSoWhite: How a Lack of Diversity Historically Dooms Oscars Ratings

Breaking down the ratings of past telecasts by race reveals they suffer when the Academy fails to nominate people of color. That’s bad news for this year.

Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

When people are blinded, they turn away. Even, apparently, from the Oscars.

#OscarsSoWhite, it turns out, isn’t just bad for our culture, societal progress, and the arts. It’s also bad for business, having a compelling effect on the ratings for Oscars telecasts through the years, The Daily Beast has learned.

The inexcusable—and, yes, blinding—whiteness of this year’s Academy Awards has sent ripple effects through Hollywood, with many members of the community outraged that, for the second year in a row, not a single acting nominee is a person of color. Not only that, but not a single film telling the story of a person of color is nominated for Best Picture.

The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, started when 2015 marked the first Oscars in two decades without a single acting nominee of color, was revived in response, kindling fiery passion throughout the industry—from people of color or otherwise.

Several of Hollywood’s most famous black actors have called for a boycott of the ceremony.

The Academy has announced an initiative to ensure more diversity in its voting body and revamped its voting eligibility rules, in response to suggestions that the lack of diversity in the nominees stems from the overwhelming makeup of its voters: male, white, and old.

Nearly every single actor in Hollywood has, at this point, been asked to weigh in on the issue, and speculation has run rampant on how Oscars host Chris Rock—one of the sharpest comedians when it comes to race observation and an actor who has penned an essay in the past about institutional racism—would address the controversy during this year’s ceremony.

And, because Hollywood is a business and the Academy Awards is, after all, a television show, too, there has been handwringing over how #OscarsSoWhite would affect this year’s Oscars ratings—one year after the 2015 telecast offered up the worst viewership numbers since 2009.

While the deafening #OscarsSoWhite controversy may actually spark interest in this year’s telecast, a look at past viewership data suggests that a lack of diversity in nominees has a noticeably negative effect on Oscars ratings.

Using ratings data provided by Nielsen that broke Oscars viewership down by race, stretching back to the 2004 telecast, we found that the largest percentage of black viewers and non-white viewers tuned in to the Academy Awards in years when the most nominees of color and films featuring protagonists of color were in contention.

The reverse is also true: Generally, the years with the least diversity were the least-watched among people of color.

Not only that, but the years that had the highest percentages of black and non-white viewers also happened to be the highest rated Oscars telecasts overall. That means that people of color have been a major force in driving the biggest Oscars ratings.

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Simply put, a more diverse slate of nominees leads to better ratings. Assuming that the Academy needs big ratings numbers to make money and stay relevant, #OscarsSoWhite—or, at the very least, a resistance to diversity—is bad for business.

For example, 2005 was the year with the highest ratings among black viewers, with 5.3 million tuning in, amounting to 12.5 percent of that year’s total viewers. It was also among the highest rated Oscars ceremony in the years that we surveyed, topping out at 42 million viewers.

That year, six nominees were actors of color: Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda), Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace), and Jamie Foxx, who won for Ray and was nominated for Collateral.

Plus Ray was a Best Picture nominee, one of only nine Best Picture nominees in the 12 years we surveyed featuring a protagonist of color. (The others: Crash, Babel, Precious, The Help, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, and Selma. And we will concede that several of the films on that list are dubious inclusions.)

Over the course of the 12 years we looked into, viewership among black and non-white viewers, which includes Hispanic and Asian viewers, reliably spiked in years with the most nominees of color.

In 2007, there were a remarkable eight nominees of various non-white races contending for acting trophies: Forest Whitaker (Last King of Scotland), Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness), Penelope Cruz (Volver), Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond), Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), and Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kinkuchi (Babel).

That year 12.15 percent of the total viewership was black, the second-highest in that period. Just more than 20 percent of the viewership was non-white as a whole—the highest of any year. And it was the year with the second-biggest ratings overall, with 40.2 million viewers tuning in, signaling again that people of color help to drive viewership in the biggest Oscars years.

Babel was also a Best Picture nominee that year. Though it didn’t get a Best Picture nod, Dreamgirls was the most nominated film of the year. Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson were among the performers at the ceremony, and Hudson and Forest Whitaker were presumed victors long before the ceremony aired.

There’s no factual correlation between an Oscar telecast that spotlights black performers and higher ratings, but there certainly is an anecdotal case to be made suggesting that.

And while the numbers indicate that total viewership surges when black viewership surges—2010’s telecast, in which Precious was nominated, scored a stellar 42 million viewers and was third-ranked among black viewers and nominees of color—there is also a correlation between a lack of diversity and ratings.

Up until last year’s first #OscarsSoWhite telecast, during which Selma was nominated for Best Picture, the least-watched Oscars telecasts among black and non-white viewers were, perhaps expectedly, the years featuring only two nominees of color or less, and no Best Picture nominees featuring diverse protagonists.

The lowest percentage of black viewers tuned in for the 2004, 2008, and 2011 telecasts. In 2004, only Djimon Hounsou (In America) and Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) were nominated. In 2008, only Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Ruby Dee (American Gangster) got nods. In 2011, it was only Bardem, for Biutiful.

And with the exception of 2004’s ceremony, which aired during an era when the Oscars ratings didn’t fluctuate as wildly as they tend to now and were almost always guaranteed blockbuster numbers, total viewership over the years we surveyed was reliably lowest when the films in contention were woefully, well, “white.”

The ratings for last year’s #OscarsSoWhite fiasco were the worst since 2009, a fact that you can’t help contrast with the numbers for the year before. The ceremony in 2014—when 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress, and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Barkhad Abdi were also nominees—was the highest rated ceremony of the 12 years we surveyed.

Oh, and the lowest ratings? That was for 2008’s ceremony, a year that was almost laughably white: No Country for Old Men defeated There Will Be Blood, Juno, Atonement, and Michael Clayton for Best Picture.

Admittedly, this isn’t a perfect argument.

There are many reasons why ratings for the Oscars surge or plummet. A theory that is often floated correlates high ratings to the box office totals of the nominees. The year of Titanic remains the most-watched Oscars ever. In our surveyed range, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King help stoke big ratings in 2004, while the year that Avatar competed (but lost) also put up big numbers.

Still, there is a compelling case to be made by looking at the data that diversity in nominees and the films in contention also plays a major part in driving viewership; it should also be noted that the year Avatar competed was also one of the most diverse years in terms of nominees.

Plus, years featuring the largest percentages of black and non-white voters also had the highest Oscars ratings, suggesting that people of color play a large part in fueling bigger viewership numbers. And that happens when there are diverse nominees.

So what does all of this mean for this year, a year when the lack of diversity among the nominees isn’t just fodder for thinkpieces and social media handwringing—but actual calls for action?

This is an unprecedented situation—two consecutive years with no acting nominees of color and, this year, no Best Picture nominees either—and therefore an unprecedented case study.

Despite our argument that a lack of diversity hurts Oscars ratings, there’s a valid rebuttal that the zeitgeist-seizing controversy surrounding #OscarsSoWhite could actually lead to bigger numbers. A lot of people are desperate to know how the Academy and especially Chris Rock will address the situation, if at all, and what repercussions there will be from the grassroots Oscars boycott—again, if any.

In a year when a huge swath of Best Picture nominees generate little excitement and suffer from low box-office totals, let alone awareness—How many people in Peoria have seen Room? It’s lovely, I’m just making a point—the scandal is piquing interest in the telecast and, at the very least, reminding people that it’s even on.

But that brings up a larger point, one that ties this diversity-viewership theory to the box-office-viewership one.

People care about the Academy Awards telecast when it features movies and performances they’ve seen. What these stats and the #OscarsSoWhite debate in general makes clear is that people who go to the movies—people of every color, every race, every gender, every sexual orientation—really just want to see themselves.

It’s time to make that happen.