The Oscars audience swelled by more than half a million people on Sunday shortly after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, capping the awards show with a late-night surge.
At 10:27 p.m., Mr. Smith attacked Mr. Rock after the comedian delivered a joke onstage about Mr. Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Nearly 17.4 million viewers were watching in the minutes after the slap, up from 16.8 million shortly before it, according to Nielsen data released by ABC.
Mr. Rock, who was presenting an award, had taken a jab at the close-cropped hair of Ms. Pinkett Smith, who has alopecia, a condition that leads to hair loss. Mr. Smith walked onto the stage, struck Mr. Rock, and then returned to his seat and loudly demanded, using expletives, that the comedian refrain from talking about Ms. Pinkett Smith. Mr. Smith’s words, as well as Mr. Rock’s responses, were silenced during the broadcast, leaving many viewers struggling to understand what had happened and speculating whether the incident was scripted. (It was not.)
Until that point, viewership had been tailing off. The largest audience measured by Nielsen came earlier in the night, when nearly 17.7 million people watched Troy Kotsur, the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar, deliver a heartfelt acceptance speech for his supporting role in “CODA.”
Viewership dropped off quickly after the attack, but then surged again during the period when Mr. Smith, who was the heavily favored front-runner in the best actor race, returned to the stage to claim the award for his role in “King Richard.” About 17.4 million people watched his speech, according to the Nielsen data.
On Monday, Mr. Smith apologized for his actions. Earlier that day, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said it was conducting a formal review of the incident.
Overall, the Oscars drew 16.6 million viewers, around 4.9 million of them 18 to 49 years old, according to Nielsen. The audience was 58 percent larger than the all-time low of 10.4 million people who watched last year, but was still by far the second smallest viewership on record. ABC said that the Oscars drove 22.7 million interactions on social media, a 139 percent increase over last year’s broadcast.