Slumdogmillionaire The good news: Ratings for this year’s Academy Awards improved substantially over last year and are the highest for any TV show (sports excluded) in two years.

The bad news: Those improvements come over a historic low for the Oscar telecast in 2008, and Sunday’s audience was still well below that of the past few years. And if the audience surged when the big awards were handed out in the show’s final minutes, we don’t know, because according to Nielsen, the show ended about a half-hour before it ended.

ABC says an average of 36.3 million people watched the 81st annual Oscars on Sunday, an improvement of better than 4 million people over last year’s all-time low of 32 million. It’s the most-watched entertainment program of the season by a wide margin (over the American Idol premiere last month) and bigger than any other entertainment program since the 2007 Oscars drew 40.17 million viewers.

The adults 18-49 rating for the Oscars also went up, rising from 10.7 in 2008 to 12.1 this year. All the other key demos improved too — even men under 35, who many pundits presumed lost when The Dark Knight was shut out of most of the major categories (it did win two awards, for supporting actor Heath Ledger and for sound editing).

All these numbers are based on “time zone-adjusted” fast national ratings that take into account the live nationwide broadcast. What they don’t take into account is the last 25 to 30 minutes of the broadcast.

Here’s the deal: Nielsen marks the end time of a program as the time of the last national commercial break, which in the Oscars’ case came at 11:25 p.m. ET Sunday. The show, however, didn’t end until a couple minutes before midnight ET. During that last half-hour or so, the marquee awards for best actress (Kate Winslet for The Reader), actor (Sean Penn for Milk) and picture (Slumdog Millionaire), so it’s not unreasonable to expect there might have been an uptick in viewers. We just don’t know if that happened based on the figures we have now.

While the year-to-year numbers for the Oscars are good, this year’s telecast doesn’t stack up quite as well against recent history. Even with the two least-watched Oscars in history airing this decade (last year and 2003), the telecast has averaged better than 39 million viewers in this decade, a number last night’s broadcast failed to reach. Sunday’s awards were also only the fourth since 1988 to fall short of 40 million viewers (last year, 2006 and 2003 are the others).

The telecast, with Hugh Jackman as host and heavy on clip packages, has been a love-or-hate proposition with most reviewers. It ran about 3 hours and 30 minutes, which is about par for the course over the past decade.

Posted by:Rick Porter