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]