The Academy Awards on Sunday night drew a larger audience than last year, when viewership plunged to an all-time low, but interest remained depressed amid disruptions to television- and movie-watching habits.
The 94th edition of the awards show attracted 15.4 million viewers on ABC and a 3.2 rating among adults between 18 and 49 years old, according to a preliminary national report from Nielsen released to ABC on Monday. The early results showed a 56 percent improvement on the 9.6 million people who watched last yearâ€™s event, according to ABC, though Sunday nightâ€™s show was still the second least-watched Oscars ever.
Initial viewership figures evolve in the days after the show to factor in West Coast audiences as well as out-of-home and livestream viewing.
The telecast took a bizarre turn more than two hours in, when Will Smith strode onstage and slapped Chris Rock in the face for telling a joke about his wife. Mr. Smith then returned to his seat, and less than an hour later, he won the best actor prize.
Initial numbers did not indicate whether there was a surge in viewership after the slap, which immediately ricocheted around the internet.
More From the 94th Academy Awards
Organizers have been desperate to reverse a yearslong ratings slide for the Oscars, which saw viewership last year plummet 58 percent. To perk up interest, they hired the comics Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes to host a show that had been hostless since 2019; relegated some awards to a pretaped segment to speed things up; and invited fans to vote on Twitter for their favorite film (Zack Snyderâ€™s â€œArmy of the Deadâ€).
The broadcast hit its peak in 1998, when 55.2 million viewers tuned in to watch â€œTitanicâ€ sweep the awards, and has struggled to retain its cultural relevance since. Awards shows took an additional hit during the pandemic but had already been facing criticism for being too white, too long, too politicized and too boring.
Mr. Smithâ€™s attack happened after Mr. Rock, who was handing out the award for best documentary, joked about Mr. Smithâ€™s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her closely-cropped hair.
â€œJada, I love you â€” â€˜G.I. Jane 2,â€™ canâ€™t wait to see it, all right?,â€ he said, referencing the 1997 film â€˜G.I. Jane,â€™ which featured Demi Moore sporting a buzz cut.
The joke prompted an eye roll from Ms. Pinkett Smith, who has been vocal about her struggles with alopecia, a condition that leads to hair loss. Mr. Smith then marched onto the stage, slapped Mr. Rock, turned around and returned to his front-row seat. Then, using an obscenity, he yelled at the comedian stop speaking about Ms. Pinkett Smith.
The attack appeared onscreen, but many viewers in the United States did not hear Mr. Smith yell at Mr. Rock because ABC cut the sound. That left many viewers initially wondering if the attack was real or a skit. Uncensored clips soon shot around the internet, leaving no doubt that it was real.
Forty minutes later, Mr. Smith won the Best Actor trophy for his role in â€œKing Richard.â€
He returned to the stage to receive the award â€” his first â€” and delivered an emotional speech apologizing to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and to his fellow nominees, but not to Mr. Rock.
â€œI hope the Academy invites me back,â€ he said at the end of his speech.
The outburst divided Hollywood. The Academy said in a statement on Twitter that it â€œdoes not condone violence of any form,â€ without naming either Mr. Smith or Mr. Rock. The actor Mark Hamill called it the ugliest Oscars moment, while the comedian Kathy Griffin said it was â€œvery bad practice.â€
Tiffany Haddish, a comedian who co-starred with Ms. Smith in the film â€œGirls Trip,â€ described Mr. Smithâ€™s protective display as â€œthe most beautiful thing Iâ€™ve ever seen.â€
The confrontation jolted a broadcast whose most exciting moments earlier had included historic acting wins by Ariana DeBose of â€œWest Side Storyâ€ and Troy Kotsur of â€œCODAâ€ and a surprise appearance by the rapper Megan Thee Stallion in a performance of the hit â€œWe Donâ€™t Talk About Brunoâ€ from the best animated feature winner â€œEncanto.â€
â€œCODA,â€ which featured Mr. Kotsur as a deaf fisherman trying to relate to his hearing daughter and was snapped up by Apple TV+ for $25 million after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival last year, was the first film from a streaming service to win a best picture Oscar. Jane Campion beat out Steven Spielberg to claim the directing trophy for â€œPower of the Dogâ€ on Netflix.
Despite being aired on a broadcast network, the night underscored the upheaval to theater-going and traditional television caused by streaming services and online platforms. Many people caught highlights from the show on social media.