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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Avatar" may have failed to repeat the Academy Award success for "Titanic," but James Cameron's latest hit film proved once again: nothing draws eyeballs to the Oscars like the nomination of a blockbuster.
Sunday night's Oscars drew 41.3 million U.S. viewers, up 5 million from last year and the biggest audience for the Academy Awards in five years, the Nielsen Company reported on Monday.
The average viewership tally for the 3 1/2-hour-plus live broadcast on ABC, a unit of the Walt Disney Co, also marked the second straight year of Nielsen gains for the film industry's annual celebration.
Co-hosted by comic stars Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin -- the first pair of emcees to share the stage since Oscar came to television -- the show drew middling reviews from critics, some of whom found the broadcast awkwardly paced.
Oscar organizers had sought to broaden the public appeal by doubling the number of films nominated for best picture from the usual five to 10, thus including more movies seen by mass audiences in the awards sweepstakes.
In the end, a low-budget Iraq war drama that was largely an arthouse favorite, "The Hurt Locker," was the evening's biggest winner, picking up six prizes in all, including Oscars for best film and best director.
But the presence among the contenders of "Avatar," the highest-grossing movie of all time, and its front-runner status in the race was likely the single biggest factor in the boosting the Oscars' ratings performance on Sunday night.
The inclusion of other mainstream favorites such as family films "The Blind Side" and "Up," which were unlikely to have made it into a five-way best-picture contest in previous years, almost certainly gave an additional lift to the ratings.
Nielsen said "Avatar" dominated "online buzz" surrounding the nominated films ahead of the Oscars, accounting for nearly 25 percent of Internet conversations about movies last week.
The ratio of commercial hits to arthouse fare in the Oscars race has long influenced the show's ratings success.
The most-watched Oscar broadcast on record was in 1998, when Cameron's last box-office blockbuster, "Titanic," sailed off with a record-tying 11 awards, including the prize for best picture, in a show watched by some 55 million Americans.
By contrast, 2008's 80th anniversary of the Academy Awards, dominated by European stars and films that played poorly at box offices, entered record books as the least-watched Oscar show ever, averaging just 32 million U.S. viewers. That year's big winner was the grim crime thriller "No Country for Old Men."
The Oscars' hefty audience growth from 2009, when "Slumdog Millionaire" was crowned best picture and 36.3 million U.S. viewers watched, follows a trend of double-digit, year-to-year growth for other major award shows, including the Golden Globes, the Grammys and People's Choice Awards, Nielsen said.
That pattern suggests another factor may be at work -- a renewed interest in big-event TV broadcasts at a time when audiences are increasingly fragmented by the proliferation of cable channels and the Internet.
The last time the Academy Awards averaged more viewers than Sunday night was in 2005, when 42.1 million tuned in to see the boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" named best picture.
The granddaddy of TV broadcasts remains the National Football League Championship Super Bowl, which averaged a whopping 106.5 million viewers last month to surpass the 1983 record set by the finale of the comedy "M*A*S*H" to rank as the most-watched U.S. telecast of all time.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Doina Chiacu