By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sunday's Academy Awards telecast on the ABC network drew 16 percent fewer viewers than last year, Nielsen figures showed, in what could be due to what critics deemed a long, lackluster show and narrow box office appeal among most of the top nominees.
Nielsen data on Monday showed viewership of 36.6 million, a worrisome drop for Walt Disney Co's ABC since the program is its biggest annual draw.
ABC banked on actor Neil Patrick Harris, who has earned plaudits as host of TV's Emmy Awards and theater's Tony Awards, to build on the momentum of comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who helped last year's show attract 43.7 million viewers, its biggest audience since 2000.
The Academy Awards show annually attracts the biggest non-sports TV audience in the United States, but the show this year drew the lowest viewership since 2009.
Harris, 41, who has a strong following among younger viewers as the star of sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," was seen as a bridge between older viewers and the younger audiences advertisers covet most.
Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, now in their third year of running the Oscars telecast, gambled on big musical numbers with the likes of Lady Gaga's tribute to "The Sound of Music" and an opening song-and-dance routine that failed to garner a strong ovation from the star-studded crowd.
Critics faulted the show, which ran about 40 minutes longer than its three-hour schedule, for poor writing and bland bits.
The Oscars also had a built-in disadvantage as only one of the eight best picture nominees, "American Sniper," surpassed $85 million at the U.S. box office, and few A-list Hollywood stars earned acting nominations.
(Reporting by Eric Kelsey; Editing by Chris Reese, Piya Sinha-Roy and Lisa Von Ahn)