LOS ANGELES - ABC is in for a "Crash" landing in the Oscar ratings. An estimated 38.8 million people watched the Academy Awards Sunday, down 8 percent from last year and the worst since 2003, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Except for the 2003 count of 33 million viewers - when "Chicago" took the best-picture award - the Oscars hadn't dipped below 40 million viewers since 1987, Nielsen said.
The ceremony, where "Crash" won a surprise best picture trophy, drew a 27.1 rating and a 40 share. Each rating point is equivalent to 1.1 million homes, while the share indicates that 40 percent of the TVs in use last night were tuned to the awards.
Last year's metered markets had a 30.1 rating and 43 share, Nielsen said.
The ceremony's central lesson: Play a real person enmeshed in wrenching drama, win an Academy Award.
It worked last year for Jamie Foxx in "Ray" and this time around for Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line" and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the glory-hungry writer in "Capote."
Sunday's Oscars were anything but predictable, however, as the explosive race drama "Crash" denied "Brokeback Mountain" the best-picture Oscar - despite the gay Western love story's front-runner status and its best-director award for Ang Lee.
With six different films dividing up the top six Oscars, the ceremony hosted by first-timer Jon Stewart denied anyone unmitigated bragging rights.
Michael Weinfeld, A-P correspondent, with Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman, producers of 'Crash': The producers of `Crash' and the director of `Brokeback Mountain' are in shock over the way the Oscars turned out.
Witherspoon, who joined co-star Joaquin Phoenix as country legend Johnny Cash in singing in the film, gave credit for her performance to her mother and grandmother.
"They taught me a lot and a lot of characteristics that a woman should have in life, and how tough women are and how strong we are," she said backstage. "And I feel like it really helped my performance with June, because I sort of came in with an innate knowledge of who she was as a woman."
Hoffman's performance captured Capote's charm and the author's self-serving style as he gathered material for his groundbreaking book, "In Cold Blood."
Asked what the late author would have thought of his portrayal, Hoffman said backstage: "He's a pretty elusive guy, so I don't know. I don't know. It depends on if he liked me or not and I don't know if he would."
"Crash," featuring an ensemble cast in intersecting story lines over a violent, disturbing 36-hour period in Los Angeles, was lifted by a late surge of praise that carried it over "Brokeback Mountain," which had won most other key Hollywood honors.
"We are humbled by the other nominees in this category. You have made this year one of the most breathtaking and stunning maverick years in American cinema," said "Crash" producer Cathy Schulman.
The film was also honored for original screenplay by the film's director, Paul Haggis, and Bobby Moresco, and film editing. "Brokeback Mountain" captured best adapted screenplay for Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove") and Diana Ossana, and musical score for Gustavo Santaolalla.
"I'm so proud of the movie," Lee said backstage, where he was asked if he was disappointed that "Brokeback Mountain" lost best picture and what might have kept it from winning. "Why they didn't go for it I don't know. You're asking a question that I don't know the answer. ... Congratulations to the `Crash' filmmakers."
Front-runners usually prevail, but there have been some notable dark-horse winners at past Oscars. Underdogs that came away with best picture include "An American in Paris," "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "Oliver!"
Supporting-performer Oscars on Sunday went to George Clooney in "Syriana" and Rachel Weisz in "The Constant Gardener."
Clooney's win capped an exceptional year in which he made Oscar history by becoming the first person nominated for acting in one movie and directing another. (The Edward R. Murrow tale "Good Night, and Good Luck" earned him directing and writing nominations.)
"Crash," an Oscar rarity that was shot outside the studio system on a meager $6.5 million budget, became a solid box-office hit, grossing $55 million domestically.
The cast of "Crash" includes supporting-actor nominee Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jennifer Esposito and Ryan Phillippe.
Although Comedy Central's Stewart proved a relatively tame host, the ceremony was given a jolt of life by the raucous hip-hop tune "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle & Flow." The song, with expletive-laden lyrics edited for the ceremony, won the prize for best song. The song was written by the rap group Three 6 Mafia, consisting of Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman and Paul Beauregard.
"You know what? I think it just got a little easier out here for a pimp," Stewart joked after the performance.
The stop-motion family tale "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" won the Oscar for best animated feature film. The Antarctic nature tale "March of the Penguins," a surprise smash at the box office, was honored as best documentary.
"King Kong," from "Lord of the Rings" creator Peter Jackson, won three Oscars, for visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing. The Japan drama "Memoirs of a Geisha" also earned three, for cinematography, costume design and art direction, while the fantasy epic "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was picked for best makeup.
South Africa's drama "Tsotsi," based on Athol Fugard's novel about a young hoodlum reclaiming his own humanity, won for foreign-language film, beating the controversial Palestinian terrorism saga, "Paradise Now."