LOS ANGELES – "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (search) helped reverse last year's sharp drop in Oscar viewership, but the staid ceremony couldn't match the buoyant "Titanic" ratings of 1998.
ABC's telecast Sunday drew 43.5 million viewers, up 32 percent over last year's war-depressed ratings and putting the show on par with 2002 (41.8 million) and 2001 (42.9 million).
But even the last installment of the enormously popular "Rings" fantasy epic, which won 11 Academy Awards (search) to tie the record shared by "Titanic" (search) and "Ben-Hur," couldn't pull ABC close to the high of 55.2 million viewers who tuned in when "Titanic" ruled.
Last year, when "Chicago" (search) took best picture and the ceremony coincided with the start of the Iraq war, ratings dipped to a modern low of 33 million viewers.
ABC, which organized a massive promotional blitz to restore luster and ratings to this year's show, said it was satisfied with the results. Oscar plugs were inserted in ABC soap operas and other shows.
"Anytime you get a 32 percent gain versus a year ago, you have to be pleased," Larry Hyams, ABC research chief, said of the figures released Monday by Nielsen Media Research.
Final ratings were to be released Tuesday with little if any variation expected.
First-time ceremony producer Joe Roth — a studio head whose company's credits include the mainstream "Anger Management" and "Daddy Day Care" — brought back popular host Billy Crystal and his clever pre-filmed openings.
Moving the ceremony up by a month and keeping it relatively tight (3 hours and 25 minutes, well shy of the 2002 record of 4 hours, 23 minutes) also helped, said academy President Frank Pierson.
"I think the show went smoothly. We ended just a few minutes past midnight in New York, which is good. We started six weeks earlier this year, and that paid off," he said Sunday night.
Others were not so kind toward the 76th Oscar telecast which, as usual, had long stretches of celebrity-free awards (such as best sound mixing) livened by brief bursts of fun. Adrien Brody (news)'s mouth-spritzing to prepare for "Monster" best actress Charlize Theron — playing off his Halle Berry (news) liplocking after he won best actor last year — was one bright spot.
With the once-reviled dance numbers gone, it became clear that "the Academy Awards are basically just four hours of movie stars doing dramatic thank-you note readings," wrote Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times.
The ceremony also dodged the kind of political grenade that documentary maker Michael Moore dropped at last year's show or the brazenness of Janet Jackson's peep show (although cleavage was plentiful).
"Whether guided by decorum or a desire to play nice with Washington powers-that-be already incensed by the Super Bowl halftime show, everybody stayed safe," commented TV Writer Frazier Moore of The Associated Press.
With the academy voting the party line with "The Lord of the Rings" — it swept all of the 11 categories in which it was nominated — the show also became increasingly predictable.
Even famous attendees were less than impressed.
"There were no surprises," Elton John said at a post-Oscar party.
"I think Billy (Crystal) was very funny, but there is still a lot of boring stuff you have to sit through," said Will Smith, among the presenters.
The J.R.R. Tolkien epic's third installment, breaking through an Academy bias against fantasy projects, picked up trophies including best picture, best director for Peter Jackson and best song.
The first two "Rings" films won only technical or music awards.
"I think the fact that we had goblins and trolls and wizards and everything else made it hard for people to take it seriously," Jackson said backstage. "I appreciate that the academy and voters tonight have seen through all that."
None of the cast was in the running, clearing a bit of room for other films. The lead acting trophies went to Theron and to Sean Penn for "Mystic River," with supporting-performance Oscars went to Tim Robbins for "Mystic River" and Renee Zellweger for "Cold Mountain."
Sofia Coppola's victory for original screenplay for "Lost in Translation" made her family the second clan of three-generation Oscar winners, joining Walter, John and Anjelica Huston. Her father is five-time winner Francis Ford Coppola, who was an executive producer on "Lost in Translation," and her grandfather, Carmine Coppola, won for musical score on "The Godfather Part II."