The following categories include roughly 2 billion people: the Commonwealth; learners of English as a second language; Christianity; Hepatitis B infections; and the population of the world when Queen Elizabeth II was born.
The audience for the recent Royal Wedding doesn’t include 2 billion people — not even by a rough count. It was viewed by millions, not billions, or people. In the afterglow of the wedding, media reports around the world breathlessly reported a figure that, if true, meant that a third of the world’s population tuned in to watch Wills and Kate walk down the aisle. This report from the Sunday Telegraph’s Richard Clune was typical: "Globally, more than two billion people watched Prince William marry Catherine and a further 400 million watched via the Internet, with live streams broadcast from the royal palace and the BBC, amongst others." This article was republished on The Daily Telegraph online, News.com.au and Perth Now.
This was a grossly inflated — and frankly implausible — figure and some journalists wised up quickly. Hari Sreenivasan at PBS Newshour started asking questions soon after the broadcast: "Seriously? Are we that enamored about creating spectacle, about creating fictitious records that break previously unsubstantiated ones? Do we really want that badly to have firsts, and mosts so much so we can take pleasure in saying — ‘I was there when’ or is it simply a justification for this type of over-the-top coverage. The larger the unsubstantiated viewership, the easier it is to justify the satellite trucks and the hotel rooms?"
Richard Preston at The Telegraph did get stuck into the figure in a feature, calling the 2 billion estimate a fairytale, writing that it "proves first that everyone loves a big number, and second that journalistic estimates of bodies of people or sums of money are, invariably, cobblers."
There were sceptical bloggers and Al Jazeera was dubious early on too but the Australian media was content to repeat the 2 billion figure again and again. (Australian outlets that got it grossly wrong include: The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, AAP in The Adelaide Advertiser, AFP in the Courier Mail and Herald Sun, The Mercury, The Examiner, ninemsn, Yahoo7, Channel Nine’s Today Show, Sky News, 2UE, SBS World News Radio. International offenders include The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Telegraph in the UK; and Fox News and Yahoo in the US.)
So how did so many media outlets decide that one in three of the world’s citizens stopped whatever they were doing and watched a Windsor knot get tied? Note that they weren’t saying that two billion were "reported" or "expected" to watch the wedding. The consensus call was two billion viewers.
As a matter of fact, the figure predated the wedding by some three weeks. British culture minister Jeremy Hunt predicted an audience of that size at a cabinet meeting on 6 April. Who knows how he came up with the figure?
It’s actually not possible to put an exact figure on the audience size for the wedding — but it is possible to show categorically that two billion people did not watch it.
The two probable most watched live events in history are the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony (1 billion viewers) and the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final (715 million viewers). However, even these are estimates as many countries don’t have television ratings systems. So to be fair, we’ll give Jeremy Hunt and all those who believed him the benefit of the doubt by putting together outrageously favourable estimates.
Firstly: the nuptials of the British monarchy are likely to hold their greatest appeal in the UK. According to The Daily Mail, 26.2 million viewers tuned into the wedding. About a quarter of the population — the tenth largest audience in British history.
The biggest audience in a single country was in India: 42.1 million viewers. Plenty, but a small slice of a population of over a billion.
22.7 million people watched in the US; 12 million in Canada "tuned in at some point of the coverage"; 8.1 million in South Africa; 8 million in Australia; 2.2 million in New Zealand; and 1.3 million in Ireland. A total of 122.6 million.
Many stories stated a further 400 million watched on the internet. This was the figure YouTube anticipated. Actually, reports YouTube, "the total streams on April 29, 2011 reached 101 million as romantics around the globe tuned in to watch the fairytale ceremony, the procession and the final balcony kiss."
If we add television and online views together, we get nearly 224 million viewers. The combined population of these countries is nearly 1.68 billion — nearly a quarter of the global population. If we allow for the same viewership rates in the rest of the world and multiply 224 million by four, the audience still wouldn’t reach 900 million — even if the wedding was as popular in the rest of the world as it was in the English speaking world. (And we’d have to do some sticky maths and ignore the fact that most online viewers fell out of the group above. The top five viewing countries for YouTube were the UK, the US, Italy, Germany, France.)
These ratings figures may be rough and inconsistent, but ratings agencies looking into the past are more reliable than a British cultural minister looking into the future.
What about China? Did the royal wedding fulfil some sort of nostalgia for a time before the Cultural Revolution? Unlikely. There was only one domestic network showing the wedding, and only one million viewers were expected (less than 0.1 per cent of the population).
David Dale, popular culture and TV ratings columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, said audience statistics are usually quoted by people with vested interests.
"People want to prove some huge audience for their own purposes. They very rarely stand up to what you call analysis," he said. "Whatever they think the wedding means, a symbol of British superiority or civilisation … being seen by a third of the world’s population — it’s just a fantasy."
What fantasy was being fanned by inflating the viewership statistics? Was it good news for network television? Was it a UK government minister making a desperate grasp for relevance? Was it a sign that the world’s media is controlled by monarchists with princess complexes? We can’t know this. But it’s disgraceful that such a wholly implausible figure could be touted with such certainty so widely.
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