Royal Wedding unites the world in mathematical lunacy

This is a rant about the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. But it is not a rant about the wedding itself. Nor is it a rant about the hype surrounding the event. Instead it is a rant about a particularly ludicrous element of the hype that offends me as a rationally thinking geek.

Read almost any media report of the event and you will discover that an estimated two billion people will watch the event. This isn’t an isolated claim: search Google News and the figure is repeated in Manilla, Vancouver, Africa, India,  Tulsa, and New Zealand. The world’s media is clear: TWO BILLION people will watch as William and Kate tie the knot.

Bullshit.

I’m not offended by the fact that somebody somewhere has come up with this figure and grossly exaggerated it. I’m not really offended by the fact that most media outlets have reprinted the claim without offering an original source. But I’m offended by the fact that none of these reporters appear to have given the issue the two seconds of thought that it takes to realize that the figure is absolutely ludicrous.

How can you tell the two billion claim is too high? You’re spoilt for choice.

Why not start from a perspective of being completely non-cynical and taking previous similar claims at face value. The highest ever audience claimed for the FIFA World Cup Final is 1.3 billion. Is even the grandest of high-profile wedding really going to get a 50% increase over the biggest sporting event on the calendar?

What if we then look at the extent to which such figures are routinely exaggerated? In 2007 a British newspaper looked into FIFA’s claims that the previous year’s final had achieved an audience of 715.1 million people world wide. By looking at the verifiable ratings estimates based on electronic ratings meters in 54 countries, covering 90% of all TV owners, it found the actual audience to be more like 260 million. In other words, it’s almost impossible that any broadcast of any event ever has come anywhere close to two billion viewers.

But even if you don’t consider the fact that two billion for the royal wedding is not only a lie, but the most spectacular in a long series of lies, the figure still falls apart with some basic mathematics. Two billion is 28.9% of the world’s estimated 6.91 billion population. That means that for the wedding to get two billion viewers worldwide, it needs to be seen by an average of 28.9 percent of the population of every country on earth.

That’s possible surely? Well, let’s work on the basis that with the exception of statistical quirks such as countries with very low population, the country with the highest proportion of people watching will be the United Kingdom, home of the event. Based on betting in the country, the most common forecast is an audience of below 30 million, less than 50% of the population. If you can’t get half of the population watching in the UK, can you seriously expect 28.9% across the world?

And what if we turn our attention worldwide? Well, let’s look at a few groups. First of all, there’s all the people who don’t have access to television whatsoever. That’s extremely difficult to quantify, but we could well be talking about hundreds of millions at least. And at the risk of stating the obvious, the proportion of people among this group watching the wedding will be 0, not 28.9%.

Then throw in China, which accounts for 1.34 billion people, a fifth of the world’s population. No doubt some people will watch the wedding in this country, but will it really be a mass event there? Hell, even the most bombastic estimate for the 2008 Beijing Olympics put the audience in China at 842 million. Take into account that’s an exaggeration, compare how culturally important the two events are, and it’s tough to see China’s proportion of wedding viewers coming anywhere close to 28.9%.

Let’s move over to the Americas. North and South America combined have around 900 million residents. Throw in the fact that the US and Canada are among the countries that appear most likely to contain people interested in the wedding, and it’s clear the Americas will have to play a big part in getting us to two billion.

But can they do this? Indeed, can they at least give us the 28.9% of the population needed to help keep up the worldwide average. The clock says no. The wedding ceremony itself kicks off at 11am UK time. That’s 3am on the US west coast, 6am on the east coast, and 7am in the eastern-most countries on South America. There likely won’t even be 28.9% of the population awake.

So how can we possibly get to two billion viewers? Well, throw in delayed broadcasts and then use the trick of measuring reach (the number of people who see at least a couple of minutes at some point in the broadcast) rather than sustained audiences, and you might get a decent number. Take it to extremes and include people who don’t intentionally watch “the wedding” but see at least a few seconds’ worth of clips in news broadcasts and you could possibly get to two billion.

But any reporter who believes that when Kate Middleton walks down the aisle, two billion pairs of eyes will be watching, is simply making a right royal idiot of themselves.

[Picture credit: Alexandre Goulet / Nick Warner]

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22 Responses to Royal Wedding unites the world in mathematical lunacy

  1. THANK YOU. I've been screaming this at the top of my inside voice's lungs, while trying to sanely, calmly, explain this to people who I've heard repeating these numbers over and over again. My hat is off to the royal family on this joyous occasion, but seriously, of what concern is it to me?! Please can we divert our attention back to the more important matters at hand?!

  2. Much of the America news media has now found this royal wedding to be a viable marketing distraction which as usual is quite pointless and unimportant.

    Rising fuel & food prices, the recession, corporate corruption, air drone attacks out of Pakistan into Afghanistan, and so much more stop because of these 2 wealthy kids getting hitched. If there's a sex tape in the future I might be interested.

  3. I don't think it will be as high as people are saying but I do think a lot of people in the US will be recording it to watch it later when it isn't such a horrible hour

  4. Well, to be fair.. it's a celebration… Yes there are bigger, more important news stories, but for once, celebrate, there isn't many opportunities like that which make the news.

    So I'd say just roll with it. Watch it, don't watch it, it's up to you.

  5. the media will aid in promoting this event, which we will use as a distraction to invade 7 different countries , assasinate 12 leaders, and win in some sc2 local tournies

    /care

    big deal, my wedding will be even better. infact, it will be the best to ME and my girl. breakfast at cracker barrel, mass at 2pm, but i iwll b late ofcourse, ceremony will actually start at 4 where i will bring a chupacabra and prove the existance of big foot by introducing harry and having him bring his mother, chewie(great granddaughter of the legendary wookie and that caveman lady from who's name i have forgotten)

    k, i dont have anything else to type since i forgot where i was going and accidentally closed out everything instead of a tab and just came back to this, luckily some of the text i typed stayed but

    TL;DR i really dont care about the wedding

  6. How can one even state that roughly one third of the worlds population owns a TV that shows a channel that will be broadcasting the wedding?

  7. Hello, I am in the UK. In Manchester. There is NOBODY at the streets. No cars, no noise. I had never seen anythink like this. Is everybody watching the bloody wedding? I hope at least 50% them are just having sex…

  8. Greetings from england! Thank you for this, I'm sick of seeing all these stories about how EVERYONE'S going to be watching the wedding today. I for one, am not. I couldn't give a flying f*** to be quite honest. In fact, here in england it seems that a lot of people really don't give a damn about this wedding, we're only celebrating it because it's a day off work for most people. What I have noticed is that every shop or business/corporation feels the need to celebrate to a sickening degree, just so that the few celebrating customers do not think they are uncultured. This is where most of the hype is originating from, not the people.

  9. Greetings from england! Thank you for this, I’m sick of seeing all these stories about how EVERYONE’S going to be watching the wedding today. I for one, am not. I couldn’t give a flying f*** to be quite honest. In fact, here in england it seems that a lot of people really don’t give a damn about this wedding, we’re only celebrating it because it’s a day off work for most people. What I have noticed is that every shop or business/corporation feels the need to celebrate to a sickening degree, just so that the few celebrating customers do not think they are uncultured. This is where most of the hype is originating from, not the people.

  10. Greetings from england! Thank you for this, I’m sick of seeing all these stories about how EVERYONE’S going to be watching the wedding today. I for one, am not. I couldn’t give a flying f*** to be quite honest. In fact, here in england it seems that a lot of people really don’t give a damn about this wedding, we’re only celebrating it because it’s a day off work for most people. What I have noticed is that every shop or business/corporation feels the need to celebrate to a sickening degree, just so that the few celebrating customers do not think they are uncultured. This is where most of the hype is originating from, not the people.

  11. Thnx mate for that. I am glad i am not the only one that thought “what absolute shite” when i heard that figure. 2 billion? Really? You must take us for idiots

  12. Thnx mate for that. I am glad i am not the only one that thought "what absolute shite" when i heard that figure. 2 billion? Really? You must take us for idiots

  13. More to the point these bloodsucking leeches should be taken out and shot. As soon as Scotland is independent we'll be well rid of them. Roll on 5th May and our elections.

  14. This article doesn't actually prove anything, there's no maths behind it, and things are just 'likely' and 'unlikely'.

    • i liked this because you're funny. the reversal is true as well. a CLAIM of 2 billion viewers also "doesn't actually prove anything, there's no maths behind it."

  15. Was the 2 billion number reported for the live event? If not, it might be at least 50-75% true over the repeat telecasts across channels and timezones. And a bunch of women in India I know will be watching it multiple times. All that might add up.

  16. Just to add my shouts of gratitude. My eyes are sore from rolling each time that figure has been credulously bandied about.

  17. I think when they state these huge viewing numbers, it actually refers to "potential" viewers. Meaning the live broadcast is available to 2 billion people via local TV, if they choose to watch it. So then, 2 billion sounds quite resonable.. The actualy number of these 2b that actually watch it, is no doubt much, much lower.

  18. Thank You
    There is no way 2 Billion people are watching this use of other people money.
    Even 1 Billion, wake up! You pay these clowns, you give them everything they want, you bow down , you loose limbs in war for them and then you watch another mouth joining the firm! Oh by the way make sure other countries get rid of their rulers, but the UK that's different we want more of these lowlife.Wake up time to make sure they earn their money, what is Liz going to do ?

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