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msnbc.com news services
updated 2/23/2009 3:26:23 PM ET 2009-02-23T20:26:23

An estimated 36.3 million people watched this year's Academy Awards, an increase of more than 4 million from last year's least-watched Oscars ceremony ever.

It posted an average household rating of 23.3 in the largest U.S. TV markets, according to audience tracker Nielsen Media Research.

While ABC was heartened by the larger audience, especially among younger viewers, there are still only two Oscar telecasts on record with fewer viewers, according to Nielsen.

Last year, when "No Country For Old Men" won best picture, the telecast was seen by 32 million people. The 2003 telecast, with "Chicago" as the best picture winner, was seen by 33 million people.

Hugh Jackman was the host of Sunday's show, where "Slumdog Millionaire" was the big winner. Among the earlier awards on the telecast was the late Heath Ledger's best supporting actor prize for "The Dark Knight."

At a time that the TV audience is fragmenting, Sunday's audience was the biggest for any prime-time entertainment program in two years, ABC said. The Golden Globes was seen last month by just under 15 million people.

TV critics were lukewarm about the Oscar show. Tom Shales in The Washington Post said Jackman was a "versatile and energetic talent" but called his opening medley of songs on the best picture nominees "pointless and flat."

Video: Oscar fashion hits and misses Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein savaged the telecast. "I'm beginning to believe that saving the Oscars is a job for Iron Man or Hancock, a kick-ass superhero with the kind of unassailable powers that would allow them to radically overhaul what has become the year's stodgiest awards fest."

The Academy Awards show still ranks as the year's highest-rated entertainment spectacle on TV, and a cash cow for Walt Disney Co.’s ABC.

The largest Oscars audience on record was in 1998, when 55.2 million watched "Titanic" win best picture.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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