LOS ANGELES – This year's Oscar nominations included a lot of surprises — but can the suspense of who will win bring more viewers back to the telecast?
Last year's Academy Awards show on ABC was the least-watched Oscar ceremony since Nielsen Media Research (search) began keeping records in 1974. Only about 33 million people tuned in to watch Hollywood's highest honor, as opposed to 41 million in 2001.
But this year, the ceremony is full of unexpected nominees and could have surprise winners, too.
For instance, no one imagined Keisha Castle-Hughes of "Whale Rider" would get a best actress nod or that Nicole Kidman would be left out of the same category. Double-takes were done when Johnny Depp got a best actor nod for "Pirates of the Caribbean" and when "Cold Mountain" was left off the best picture list.
With that precedent of the unexpected, the list of people and films that most industry experts have predicted will win the major categories — Charlize Theron, Sean Penn, Peter Jackson, Tim Robbins, Renee Zellweger and "Lord of the Rings" — may not be as safe as some think.
It's very likely in fact, that there could be an upset in the best actor category.
Tom O'Neil, the host of the online awards site GoldDerby.com (search), told Reuters that the category is a "cliff-hanger in which three bad boy actors — Sean Penn, Bill Murray and Johnny Depp — are racing neck-and-neck and in which one of them will probably win by a nose."
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (search) — and ABC — are probably hoping for some surprises this Sunday, Feb. 29, at 8 p.m. EST. But not the Janet Jackson/Super Bowl kind. ABC has implemented a 5-second delay to avoid any real shockers.
Tim Robbins, nominated in the best supporting actor category for his turn in "Mystic River," said one of the things he likes about the awards show is the unpredictable nature of live television.
"What I look forward to the most is that usually there is pretty good, pretty funny stuff that happens," he told Fox News. "I like the spontaneity."
Some are worried that stars such as Robbins and Penn, who are well-known for their left-leaning political views, might use their stage time to preach politics. However, Robbins for one, has said in interviews that he would stick to the usual thank-yous.
As for the other big categories besides best actor, some critics are calling the run for best picture a one-horse race, with “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” expected to lord over the competition.
And Peter Jackson, who directed the "Rings" trilogy is also expected to take home the coveted best director award.
"It’s my absolute lock of the night," said Bill McCuddy, Fox News entertainment reporter.
However, the early awards ceremony, which is happening in late February instead of late March, could throw a kink into the predictability. Usually, in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, filmmakers campaign fiercely to persuade voters that their picture, their director, their actors and actresses are The Ones.
This abbreviated schedule, with the Golden Globes (search), SAG awards and other guild ceremonies all crammed into two months, has cut into studios’ schmoozing time and could lead to some surprise winners.
As for the entertainers on this year’s Oscar list, just being nominated has made them members of an exclusive club.
Take Naomi Watts, who got a best actress nod for her gripping role in “21 Grams.”
“I’m speechless,” Watts said at a recent Oscars luncheon. “It is far beyond whatever I dreamed for. That would just seem too far-fetched.”
Djimon Hounsou, who got a best supporting actor nomination for “In America,” was thrilled about the nod, especially since he was overlooked in the best actor category in 1998 for his role in the previous year’s “Amistad.”
“It’s an honor to be embraced by the country that embraces all culture,” Hounsou said at the luncheon.
The nominations are especially significant for actors and actresses who hail from far-away lands or haven’t yet made a big name for themselves in this country.
“It’s just another dream coming true for an actress who’s come all the way along from Persia – almost 6,000 miles,” said Shohreh Aghdashloo, a best supporting actress nominee for her role in “House of Sand and Fog.” “It’s a miracle, and I’m very happy.”
Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragon in “Rings,” said that even if the film doesn’t capture the best picture award, the nomination alone is enough of a prize.
“The reward is how people have embraced the story,” Mortensen said. “Whether it wins or loses doesn’t validate or invalidate it.”
Fox News' Mike Waco, Anita Vogel and Catherine Donaldson-Evans contributed to this report.