- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - The largest black audience for the Academy Awards over the last dozen years came in 2005, when Chris Rock was host and Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman won the top male acting awards.

Rock will be back as host this year, but it’s an open question how many black viewers will be tuning in. A lack of diversity in Oscar nominations have led to stars like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith saying they won’t attend the Academy Awards on Feb. 28.

The year’s most popular awards show is generally not a must-see event in black households: The share of blacks watching the Oscars is smaller than it is for a typical prime-time TV program, although it exceeds that for the Golden Globes or Emmy awards.

“African-American viewers watch shows that they can relate to,” said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. “When you have African-American nominees, they’re usually excited about the prospect of them winning and they tune in in larger numbers.”

That was certainly the case in 2005, when 5.3 million blacks watched the Oscars. That made up 12.2 percent of the show’s audience that year. The Academy Awards hasn’t made it up to that level since, hitting a low of 6.6 percent in 2011. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, blacks comprise 13.2 percent of the U.S. population. Blacks tend to watch more TV than other ethnic groups and in February 2015, when the last Academy Awards were broadcast, blacks made up on average 15 percent of the audience for prime-time shows, the Nielsen company said.

With diversity among Oscar nominees an issue last year, too, Nielsen said 3.3 million blacks watched the Oscars, down from 4.1 million in 2014. The annual BET awards, which honor cultural work popular in the black community, was watched by 5.5 million blacks last year. That’s 89 percent of the show’s total audience of 6.3 million.

Callie Crossley, a cultural commentator for WGBH-TV in Boston who has talked about the Oscars, said she initially questioned whether a boycott of black viewers would gain traction. But in talking with several friends about the issue, Crossley was taken aback at the amount of anger she heard.

The topic may not have blown up into a controversy had there been few award-worth performances by non-whites, although that would have been an issue for the film industry by itself. When the popular “Straight Outta Compton” and acting performances by Will Smith and Idris Elba all received pre-Oscars buzz, the lack of diversity was more obvious.

Crossley said she was heartened that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, in announcing changes to its membership rules, has already taken more action toward increasing diverse representation than it did last year. But she said it appeared the academy had suffered real damage among black viewers who might be interested in the ceremony and it may take time to regain trust.

Film isn’t the only area in entertainment where diversity has been an issue and, as a result, may illustrate why the general interest awards shows don’t appear to hold a great deal of interest on a regular basis among black viewers. The Golden Globes, a boozy Hollywood party that honors movies and television, has had between 5.2 percent and 10.6 percent black viewership over the past decade. The high point came in 2007; between 2013 and 2015, the percentage has been just under 7 percent each year.

The Emmys have shown more consistency, staying roughly in the 6 to 7 percent range of black viewers over the past decade. Black viewership shot up to 14.3 percent last year when Viola Davis was named best actress for her role in “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Empire” was the most talked-about new drama.

In seven of the past 10 years, the Oscars had a higher percentage of black viewership than either the Emmys or Golden Globes.

Despite some Academy Award celebrity defections and calls for a viewing boycott, “Chris Rock may generate some viewers,” Hunt said. People will be curious to hear what he has to say about the topic. Another drawing card is the participation of Reginald Hudlin, producer of “Django Unchained,” who is co-producing this year’s Oscars ceremony.

“It’s going to be tough,” Crossley said. “They can’t afford to lose viewership. The controversy will not end this month. It will keep going until next year.”

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Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder

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