William and Kate aim for victory in the all-time ratings war

Will the royal wedding be the biggest TV event ever?


A staggeringly huge worldwide TV audience is being predicted for the royal wedding – but how would it compare with other major televisual events from down the years?


On Friday 29 April, an estimated two billion people are expected to tune in to see William and Kate tie the knot. It’s enough to make anyone nervous.

Among those likely to be experiencing pre-wedding jitters are the 8,000 journalists and technical bods relying on the live feeds coming from inside Westminster Abbey – not to mention the BBC, ITV and Sky News staff responsible for ensuring they work. But assuming all goes according to plan, this could be one of the most watched television events in history.

The projected figure dwarfs the 750 million garnered by the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Does that make Kate more popular than the people’s princess? Of course not – back in 1981 there were just fewer TVs. And 16 years after Diana’s wedding, an estimated 2.5 billion viewers watched her funeral.

Estimates are just that, of course. But even if you find it hard to believe that over a quarter of the world’s population would tune in to watch some C of E nuptials, it’s interesting to consider which TV events have most piqued the interest of British and global audiences.

Royals aside, it’s the big sporting events that reign supreme, although in some cases estimates deviate wildly. According to various sources, between one and four billion people watched the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 (which suggests Britain could find itself among the viewing figure medals again when the Olympics come to London in 2012). More recently, one billion tuned in to see one of the derbiest derbies of all time as India narrowly outran neighbours Pakistan for a place in the 2011 Cricket World Cup final.

But truly historic events don’t have to harness the power of sporting rivalries to garner huge TV audiences (unless you take the phrase “space race” literally). There may have been fewer televisions back in 1969, but on 20 July that year, 600 million people found a set to squeeze around as they watched the Apollo 11 moon landing, and saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first weightless bounds across the lunar surface.

Over four decades later, around one billion watched the jubilant rescue of 33 Chilean miners following their two-month interment in a collapsed coal tunnel, while five million more viewed it on the internet – the biggest ever online audience for a single event.

But what about the programmes the people of Britain settle down to watch of an ordinary evening? Think The X Factor has it all sewn up? Actually, modern shows hardly get a look in.

There may be more TVs in Britain than there have ever been, and we may be watching more hours each per week, but as far as programme-makers are concerned, those effects have been outweighed by the proliferation of new channels – the extra choice has split the vote.

Even aggregate figures (taking into account catch-up TV and those viewing on PVRs) don’t account for the difference between ratings for modern “event TV” and what BBC1 and ITV could expect in the “golden era”, before cable and satellite came along to spoil the party.

On Christmas Day 1986, Den served Angie her divorce papers in front of over 30 million people, a figure today’s EastEnders producers can only dream of (the 25th anniversary live episode in January 2010, launched with much fanfare, drew less than 17 million viewers).


Which makes the projections for William and Kate’s wedding – 26 million in this country alone – all the more impressive. Whether the predictions will be fulfilled remains to be seen, but if there’s anything likely to boost those figures it’s a captive audience, driven inside by the great British weather. If current forecasts are to be believed, it could be a nice day for a wet wedding – and Kate and Wills could end up giving Den and Angie a run for their money.