How many people watched the royal wedding?

Some sources are predicting as many as 3 billion viewers

I for one will be interested to find out how many people around the world watched the wedding on the television box, and how many more streamed it over the internet tubes. A lot, obviously; that we know. It also seems to be a foregone conclusion that it will be more, probably a lot more, than the approximately 750 million viewers who watched the Charles/Diana nuptials. Some sources are predicting 3 billion viewers, and since my mind is not made to process numbers larger than the viewership of American Idol, I can barely fathom such a number, let alone whether it’s plausible. But this is a major television event, even if not a great deal happened.

We think of television as being more fragmented today than it was when Charles and Di got married, but to some extent that’s only true of scripted programming, where we can all choose the shows we want on the channels we want. Where a show offers something unique that cannot be duplicated – there’s only one Super Bowl, only (for now!) one English monarchy – combined with something a lot of people want to see, the numbers can be bigger than ever.

Update: Early reports suggest that the multi-billion viewer estimates were not plausible. It’s still big – thanks to the presence of more different channels all carrying the same event, the U.S. viewership surpassed the number for Charles and Diana. But it looks for the moment like the the 2-3 billion estimates from “British officials” may have been either wishful thinking or just a way of getting extra publicity in advance. It worked, too.

One thing that has changed a bit since the days of Chuck n’ Di: the coverage is much less frenzied. Really. I know that sounds strange. But the coverage of Charles and Di was the culmination of a long tradition of obsessive coverage of royal marriages, one that went back far enough that Cole Porter wrote a whole song in a 1932 Broadway musical making fun of it: “What will become of our England,” an English butler laments, “when the Prince of Wales finds a wife?” (The idea being that the Prince’s search for love – and every woman’s dream of marrying a prince – is the only thing the media cares about when it comes to England, and when he’s married off, the whole country is doomed.) The collapse of Charles and Diana’s marriage, and the backlash against the tabloids that followed Diana’s death, has caused the media on both sides of the ocean to be a little more circumspect: there’s still lots of talk about fairy-tale romance, but it’s tempered by a fear of going too far and hyping the marriage too much. This article in the Los Angeles Times explains it in a little more detail:

For the most part, the news media have been much more respectful of William, 28, and his privacy, striking agreements with the palace on photo ops and the extent of their encroachment on his life as a teenager, a university student and now a young man in military service.

“They’re very conscious of the fact that this boy is the son of Diana, and they don’t want to be unnecessarily offensive,” Greenslade said.

At the same time, the palace has learned how to run a tighter PR operation. The prelude to Friday’s wedding has been a master class in providing a slow drip-feed of information to the media (Today the identity of the cake maker! Tomorrow a look at the royal carriage!) while preventing major leaks. Only the royal household, the Middletons and their confidants know, for example, the true cost of the wedding or who designed the bride’s dress, which has become the object of almost fetishistic speculation.

Finally, I would be remiss in not pointing out that the saddest corporation during any royal wedding is the company that theoretically owns the movie Royal Wedding. It would be so incredibly exploitable, except that the film is one of the ones that fell into the public domain, meaning that anyone can show it on TV, release it on cheap DVDs or post it on the Internet. It’s not a particularly good musical anyway except for the famous dancing on the ceiling sequence (casting Winston Churchill’s daughter was a bad choice), but still, it is the ultimate royal marriage tie-in movie.

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