Billy Crystal: Timothy A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Gary Susman
March 01, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

The tape-delayed, hobbit-dominated Oscar show may have been a tame affair, but that didn’t deter millions of glamour-seeking viewers. According to ABC estimates, some 42.5 million watched as ”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won all 11 awards for which it was nominated. The audience figure was good news for ABC, which saw the Academy Awards ratings dip to a record low last year of 33.1 million viewers. This year’s numbers were up 17 percent, drawing an audience roughly in line with the Oscar shows of 2002 (41.8 million) and 2001 (42.9 million).

What drew so many more viewers this year? Much of it was timing. The Academy moved the show up a month this year to February, lessening the thunder-stealing impact of earlier awards shows (like the Golden Globes) and allowing ABC to promote the show more heavily during the February ratings sweeps. Also, there was no distraction this year of war coverage on other channels. Finally, while the seemingly foregone conclusion of a ”Rings” sweep may have made for little drama, it did give more viewers a rooting interest in the outcome, since it was a contender that many people had seen (unlike last year, when the top pics included ”Chicago,” ”The Hours,” and ”The Pianist”). After all, the most-watched Oscar show in recent years was the 1998 sweep of ”Titanic,” a fan favorite which also won 11 awards and which drew 55 million Oscar viewers. It’s no wonder that so many of the Middle-earth faithful wanted to see director Peter Jackson take his crown as the new ”King” of the world.

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