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By Ani Bundel

The 91st Academy Awards went better than some had expected. Despite the lack of a host, or perhaps because of it, the yearly event made a fairly successful pitch for relevance. The early Nielsen numbers are in and they are, well, pretty good. According to Deadline, the show had an audience of about 25.5 million in the early “metered markets” for the time slot. With the rise of streaming and other factors, final numbers are now looking to reach about 29.6 million, with a 7.7 rating in the all-important demo of adults aged 18 to 29. This is down slightly from 2017, which clocked 32.9 million viewers, but it’s up from last year’s all-time low of 26.5 million and the 80th Oscars in 2008, bringing the show closer to the kinds of numbers seen over the last decade.

ABC is going to love this, obviously. But while there were many things to celebrate on Sunday, the biggest lesson for the network is going to be that recognizing popular movies increases audience interest. As such, ABC will likely push for the Oscars to continue to recognize more films like “Black Panther” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” — at least as long as it airs the event. This is great news, from both an entertainment and a diversity standpoint.

While there were many things to celebrate on Sunday, the biggest lesson for the network is going to be that recognizing popular movies increases audience interest.

Overall, the Oscars felt fresher this year — even before Adam Lambert and Queen blasted out “We Will Rock You” to a slightly dazed crowd of A-listers. Indeed, it was Billy Porter's red carpet arrival, in a tuxedo ball gown designed for him by Christian Siriano, that set the tone for the rest of the night. Porter was there as part of the official ABC Oscar pre-event coverage, and though he removed his enormous skirt before the interviews began, the statement was clear: Welcome to a new era of inclusiveness, Oscars.

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Historic wins occurred often and early, with two African-American women winning in non-acting categories before 9 p.m. — the most in any year to date. The wins tripled the number of women of color who have won for production and behind-the-scenes work. “Black Panther” took home a promising amount of hardware, sweeping in a way even “Star Wars” movies don’t typically do anymore. “Roma” won in several categories, including best cinematography, and several presenters spoke in Spanish, hammering home the night's broader message of diversity. (Trevor Noah even broke out some Xhosa.) Also, Spike Lee finally won his first non-honorary Oscar for “BlacKkKlansman,” right after Samuel L. Jackson personally delivered the Knicks final score to him from the stage. It was the kind of fun, freewheeling and joyous moments that make the Oscars worth watching.

“A Star is Born,” one of the year’s biggest hits, spent the night mostly snubbed, taking home only one statue despite its eight nominations. But Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s intense performance of the movie’s hit single “Shallow” was one of the evening’s highlights. (It also reminded everyone that Cooper should have gotten a best directing nod for making himself seem like a credible rock star on film. Though his singing was fine, Gaga was clearly the master and he the student.) Combined with performances from Bette Midler and Jennifer Hudson, the show probably featured as many pop performances as it could without accidentally becoming the Grammys.

Unlike in past years, however, popular films kept winning even as the night wore on. Whatever you think of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rami Malek's win was historic and the actor is the first person of Arab heritage to win best actor. Paired with Regina King winning best supporting actress for “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Mahershala Ali winning best supporting actor in “Green Book,” three out of the four actor/actress categories went to people of color.

Ultimately, the lack of a host actually made for a smoother show. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph kicked the program off with a shortened version of the sort of comedic monologue that has often opened the Oscars, but then they moved along — as did most everyone else. There were very few bad acceptance speeches, and even fewer played off. The show declared best picture at almost exactly 11:15 p.m. ET, the fastest it has done so in years. Running slightly over did push back ABC’s heavily promoted sneak peek premiere of “Whiskey Cavalier,” but it’s likely plenty of viewers stuck around for at least a teaser.

The one big disappointment of the night was “Green Book” taking home the top prize, but even this sad trombone moment couldn’t really bring the proceedings down. (The Oscars also tellingly allowed the camera to catch the sight of prominent black artists seeming to turn their backs on the producers or leave as they spoke.) It was an unfortunate end to an otherwise progressive evening, but it also served to give the Oscars more buzz post-show.

And buzz, after all, is what ABC was really after, as suggested by all those ultimately shelved changes like a most popular film award. Turns out new categories aren’t needed, just more nominations for popular and diverse films. If the academy keeps recognizing films like these, and the ratings keep rising, we may be witnessing the dawn of a new, more populist Oscars to come, which would be the best win of all.