The Academy Awards telecast, usually the year's most-watched TV show after the Super Bowl, drew its lowest ratings ever.
Nielsen Media Research reported Monday that the show had a 26.2 rating and a 40 audience share. Its average viewership of 42.9 million was down 7 percent from the previous year.
The previous low rating of 27.3 came in 1986, when "Out of Africa" was named best picture. The viewership figure was not a record low _ since the number of homes with TV sets increases every year _ but it was the second-lowest since 1991.
"The Oscar ratings are always a barometer of what people think of the movies," said Tom O'Neil, author of "Movie Awards" and a correspondent for E! Entertainment Television. "The critics have all groused that this year was a disappointing year in films and the public has confirmed that with these ratings."
ABC said the ratings for young men were up, perhaps because an action flick, "Gladiator," was named best picture. But the audience of women was off 11 percent from last year.
The network may also have seen some erosion because an original episode of "The Sopranos" aired on HBO, said Larry Hyams, chief researcher at ABC.
"Any event that reaches 72 million people and is one of the highest-rated entertainment programs of the year has to be viewed as a tremendous success," Hyams said. (Nielsen estimated that 72 million people saw at least part of the telecast.)
In viewership, the high-water mark was 1998, when 55.2 million people tuned in to see "Titanic" sweep the major awards.
For the second year in a row, the Academy Awards loses its distinction of being the top-rated entertainment program. An estimated 45.3 million people watched the first episode of "Survivor II" in January, which aired directly following the Super Bowl. Last August's finale of the first "Survivor" drew 51 million viewers, second only to the 2000 Super Bowl.
Nielsen's Academy Awards ratings date back to 1953, when Bob Hope was host of the first televised Oscar ceremony.