Sunday's show was only the second time since 1987 that the Oscars failed to reach 40 million viewers. The 2003 awards averaged only about 33 million, the lowest since Nielsen started tracking total viewers for the Oscars in 1974.
Ratings among adults 18-49, the demographic prized by advertisers, were also off from last year. This year's broadcast scored a 13.9 rating in the demo, down about 8 percent from last year's 15.1.
On the upside for ABC, ratings among men 18-34, a notoriously hard-to-reach group, were up about 5 percent over last year. Some of that may be attributable to host Jon Stewart, who as anchor of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central has a sizable following among young men.
The Oscars also rank as the most-watched entertainment program of the season, eclipsing the post-Super Bowl episode of "Grey's Anatomy," also on ABC.