By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES, March 3 (Reuters) - Sunday's Oscar telecast drew 43 million viewers in the United States, delivering the biggest audience for the Academy Awards in a decade, but divided critics, who mostly liked host Ellen DeGeneres but thought the show ran too long.
Nielsen ratings data on Monday showed the audience that watched slavery drama "12 Years a Slave" capture the best picture honor grew 6.4 percent from last year. That is a positive sign for broadcaster ABC, which has signed on to host Hollywood's biggest night through 2020.
The Oscars attract the biggest non-sports TV audience in the United States each year, and the show drew its largest viewership since 2004, when 43.6 million tuned in.
Producers' middle-of-the-road approach to the show with DeGeneres hosting gave the Walt Disney Co-owned network similar results among younger viewers compared with last year, when they gambled with edgier comedian Seth MacFarlane as host.
DeGeneres' deadpan affability hearkened back to the more genteel hosts of the past like Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. Brian Lowry, TV columnist for trade publication Variety, said her opening monologue "screamed of a desire to dial the show back to safer terrain."
The 56-year-old comic and daytime talk show host earned high marks for her opening bits, landing jokes about actress Jennifer Lawrence falling on her way to accept an Oscar last year and teasing Oscar voters as "racists" if "12 Years a Slave" did not win best picture.
The three-and-a-half hour telecast, in which 24 awards were handed out, had little in terms of special tributes or performances to impress critics with its production.
"Despite a terrifically loose Ellen DeGeneres, the first half of the Oscars was the type of slog that makes you wonder if your friends who don't watch TV are onto something," Entertainment Weekly's Karen Valby wrote.
New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley added: "It can start to feel like a high school graduation where diplomas are handed out alphabetically, and your child's last name begins with Z."
Hollywood Reporter writer Tim Goodman thought DeGeneres was "unpredictably off her game."
"As a television event, this year's Oscars was more like an endurance test," he wrote. "It was a turgid affair, badly directed, poorly produced and featuring an endless string of either tired or wince-inducing moments by DeGeneres, who, by the last 30 or so minutes, seemed to have given up entirely."
But DeGeneres' low-key affair paid off after several years of experiments by the show's producers in an attempt to boost ratings and attract younger viewers.
In a quest to draw new viewers to an old-school awards show, organizers have expanded the best picture category from five to up to 10 to appeal to more people. They also have rotated through hosts rather than settling on the same host or hosts, as the Golden Globes has done successfully with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Ricky Gervais before them.
Early data from Nielsen showed that viewers in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 age group declined by 1 percent from last year, while viewers in the 18-34 audience grew by the same margin.
MacFarlane's performance last year put off critics with his song-and-dance routines, as well as provocative bits about Jews, gays and female nudity in film.
This year's show proved to be a smash on social media, with its most talked-about moment DeGeneres' staged "selfie" with several stars in the audience. It set the record for most retweets on Twitter, so far surpassing 2 million, and also caused a disruption in Twitter service for about 20 minutes.
Twitter Inc said that some 14.7 million Oscar-related tweets were sent worldwide during the telecast, while Nielsen's social media data overall social media activity around the ceremony increased by 75 percent from last year.