Two billion examples of innumeracy


In the leadup to the recent British Royal wedding, it was repeatedly suggested that the event would be watched by 2 billion people worldwide, that is, about 30 per cent of the world’s population. It says something for the quality of the news media that none of those reporting this estimate offered a source or the most elementary checks on plausibility, and hardly any tried to check afterwards. So, now that we are relaxing after Mother’s Day lunch, I thought I’d do the numbers.

Of the world’s population of 6.7 billion, 1.4 billion don’t have access to electricity, and almost certainly have more pressing concerns than faraway weddings. Overall, I’d guess the number with any  access to TV is probably something like 4 billion, suggesting that 50 per cent of all potential viewers would need to be watching.  That includes large numbers of children, and many people who’ve barely heard of Britain, let alone followed the details of its monarchical soap operas.

The wedding was conveniently timed for Australian viewers on a primetime Friday, but we are the exceptions. In Europe, Africa and much of Asia, the wedding was in the daytime, when most of the population was at school or work. In the Americas, it was late at night or in the small hours of the morning.

And of course lots of  people, for example in the Arab world,  may  be preoccupied with other events at this time.

On this ex ante basis, I’d say that 200 million would be closer to the mark than 2 billion

So, let’s look at how things turned out.

UK 24 million or about 40 per cent of the population

Australia 5.7 million or about 25 per cent of the population. This was the highest-rated recent event on TV, outdoing the 2005 Australian Open and the final of Master Chef with 4 million, but then, it was shown on four channels. A starting point for any assessment would therefore be the number of people who watch free-to-air TV regardless on Friday nights. It’s surprisingly hard to find these numbers, but I’d guess that it’s about 20 per cent of the population. If that’s right, the wedding managed to attract a million or so extra viewers.

US  22.8 million or about 7 per cent of the population (I also found this at the WSJ who note that this seems low in the light of the 2 billion estimate, but the link doesn’t work)

India 42 million (under 4  per cent of the population)

As far as I can tell, the event was barely covered in China

I also saw a reference to another 70 million Internet viewers, but as a blog owner, I’d take numbers like this with a large grain of salt. In my experience, it takes three or four goes to get any kind of livestreaming working properly.

Overall, the total might be marginally above 250 million worldwide (about 4 per cent, as in India), but not much, I would say.

The Australian numbers cast some light on Kevin Donnelly’s claim that

Fast-forward to recent events like the celebration of ANZAC Day and the Royal Wedding and it is clear the left has definitely lost the culture wars and that generations of Australians continue to embrace and support conservative ideals and values.

That’s a pretty strong claim to make given that the vast majority of Australians, offered the spectacle of the first big royal wedding in three decades, and presumably the last for some decades to come, overwhelmingly preferred a night out with friends, relaxation with the family, a good book or perhaps even blogging.

Donnelly, who claims to be one of Australia’s leading education commentators goes on to endorse the absurd claim that ‘billions of people around the world’ watched the wedding. Donnelly is an opponent of critical approaches to education, so I guess it’s appropriate that he should uncritically accept any nonsense that fits his prejudices. (For a further response, see Mark Bahnisch at LP).

18 thoughts on “Two billion examples of innumeracy

  1. Don’t knock the two billion figure. That’s the same number that each year watch the Melbourne Cup, the AFL grand final, the Stawell Gift, the NRL grand final, the… ok, the Stawell Gift only got one billion.

    Media outlets are genetically addicted to audience exaggeration.

    Coincidentally, there were also two billion people at Woodstock. At last count, anyway; there’ll be three million by 2030.

  2. Obviously it was standing room only around Indian TVs and elsewhere in the third-world. Or maybe they were all watching on their mobile phones or on the internet?

  3. Thankfully I was in China at the time, and pretty much missed the whole thing including all the lead up. No one I spoke to had much clue about the wedding let alone intended to watch it. CCTV didn’t even pretend to try to cover it, but I understand it was carried by BBC and CNN within China (so maybe 1-2m watched it there).

    I did see some highlights on the news a day or so later. Do they count people watching highlights within the 2 billion figure? If so, any major world event would attract 2 b, so the figure is meaningless.

  4. I looked at the Italian newspapers and was somewhat underwhelmed by the coverage which indicated to me that there wasn’t a lot of interest in that EU country. There were many other matters given far greater importance such as what is happening with Bellesconi and in Libya. Look far enough though and the coverage was there in lesser detail.

    The royalists have hyped this event up. There was a lot of interest in the pomp and ceremony which could be enjoyed whether a person is a royalist or not. Most people have had personal experience of a wedding and this creates an intrinsic interest. I had nothing better to do and so watched it.

    There was drama in the event, the potential for a stuff up, lip reading, the strange seating arrangement in Westminster Abbey – when there was any sitting done and even the elderly Queen and her husband were expected to stand for an inordinately long time at the start of the service; the security; the cars;the carriages it was all there. As a curiousity it ticked all the boxes and as it was the only thing on a Friday night was passable viewing for those worn out after a long week. The hats and dresses of the young Eugenie and Beatrice were worthy of extended commentary alone.

  5. @Freelander
    I only watched it so I could see those bizarre hats. Julia Gillard looked like a UFO was attempting a landing on the side of her head and as for a few other hats, they looked like some sort of Alien invasion.
    Being of Irish descent, I wouldnt be standing up in church for any of them though.

  6. I did hear one commentator after the event scale the figure down to millions.

  7. Perhaps that many were exposed to a snippet of it in the news, the papers or something like that. Incidentally, I can never quite understand why people take Kevin Donnelly seriously — what has the guy ever produced to justify it?

  8. JQ’s post is a nice example to illustrate a difference between arithmetic accuracy and numeracy.

    According to publicly available information on TV programs, Sat1 showed the entire wedding in Germany. While the event took place during working hours, there is a non-trivial number or pensioners and the female labour market participation rate in Germany is certainly not 100%. Magazines in Germany, equivalent to Woman’s Weekly, tend to cover events associated with the British, Dutch, Belgium, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian royal families. This signals to me there were more people in the EU watching the wedding event then the 24 million in the UK. But allowing for an error of 100% in JQ’s estimate still leaves an error of more than 100% of the PR number and an embarrassment for an alleged education commentator.

  9. We were at home on the said evening, but we chose to access the HDD to avoid the TV coverage, catching up on episodes of Supernatural that we hadn’t managed to watch until now. Who knew angels were that factionalised of God that capricious? I loved the scene where a whole bunch of rival gods — Shiva, Baldur, and some Japanese one I’d never heard of got together for a pow-wow on the fall out from the whole end of the world thing being done by the christian lot. What a romp!

    The next day, I did my own strawpoll down at the Macquarie Centre on wedding viewing. I wanted to see if “mainstream Australians” (murdochracy TM) had watched and why. Most shop assistants seemed to have watched at least some of it, though it seems the main reason given — at least amongst the females — was “to see the dress”. The male shoppies who watched mainly did so because their female companions were. I was somewhat scandalised. Much as I wouldn’t have liked the idea of them embracing the monarchy, the idea that seeing a dress was an adequate reason to waste a part of an evening seems somehow to be an even worse commentary on the masses than love for what is at least a 1000-year-old institution. Sure it’s reactionary and repulsive but it’s at least something more substantial than a garment.

    I’m told by people at work that there are in fact entire magazines devoted to nought but wedding paraphernalia. One gasps at the banality. I’d always fancied that if you’d seen one wedding outfit, you’d seen them all. Perhaps this is what happens when one decides early that getting married and having a wedding is not on the agenda.

    I always wonder at those 2bn claims though. How does one define viewing? Does it have to be realtime? How much of some even one must watch before it counts. If you walk into Dick Smiths and it’s on a display TV a week later, does that count?

    Sidebar: Hubby made the point that the post wedding pics we saw in the shopping centre of Billy Windsor proved that those hair treatments don’t work. If we are doing banality, the overhead shot was not a good look, I have to say. Perhaps he should have worn a hat — maybe something Napoleonic would have been apt. Then a new tradition could start to get that other 2 billion or so who missed out — I only watched it to see the hat.

  10. I remember reading a while ago that the exaggeration of viewers is predominant in sporting fixtures. Thus the Melbourne GP reaches billions across planet earth, I think that the World Cup (the real one, not the pale imitators in other pastimes) reaches about 8 billion and the Olympics are not far behind.
    These days the royals are a form of sport for the elderly.
    Dread to think what would happen to salaries in the entertainment industry if actual figures are ever accurately determined.

  11. Doesn’t Prof Quiggin realised that 2 billion jobs in the entertainment sector depend on fudged statistics!

  12. If you could, please subtract one more from your final figure.

    PS: Is it the topic that is tagged as “Boneheaded Stupidity”, or is it just Australia’n’s Leading Education Commentator that is tagged?

    PPS: The Ashes gets 10 billion viewers, I’m sure I read that somewhere.

  13. Read this comment to the end before you start calling me a sexist. When women stop watching Royal Weddings I will be convinced that the average female has been educated to develop some critical intelligence. When males stop watching car races, I will be convinced that the average male has been educated to develop some critical intelligence.

  14. Sadly, watching car races and Royal Weddings are not the most pointless things people do for diversion, though they come pretty close. Being disempowered has destructive consequences, clearly.


  15. @Ikonoclast

    Maximum ratings? A betrothed royal couple compete in a car race presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury who declares them husband and wife as the cross the finish line together; the cars, then pursued by paparazzi, kiss on the victory lap and burst into flames?

  16. we seem to have an anglo world view and an australian centric view on the world which might not reflect our actual place in the world rankings.
    we almost draw the map of australia as central in the world.

  17. I agree, it’s shocking that this blog has SUCH an australian-centric view of the world.

    I suspect Canada took the wedding about as seriously as Australia, the actual wedding was at 3am PST. My wife was one of the ‘dress’ fraternity, and I watched to keep her company. We didn’t watch it live, just used the PVR feature on our cable tv box.

    There’s plenty of magazines in the local supermarkets that cover the wedding. I suspect anglophillia is strong in anglo-canada as a cultural point of difference to seperate Canadians from those frightful people next door; (Quebec or the United States according to taste.)

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