London 2012: Beware billions bollocks. Ceremony to be huge TV hit, but not that huge

By Nick Harris

SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year

26 July 2012

Over the next day or so it is almost certain that you will see or hear somebody claim that the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics will be watched by a global audience of billions.

That’s bollocks. It won’t be.

Even the official website of London 2012 claims that the ceremonies of the Games and the Paralympics “will be spectacular celebrations of British culture watched by an estimated global audience of four billion people.”

I don’t doubt they’ll be spectacular and celebratory – but that number is more bollocks.

Britain deserves a gold medal for bollocks of this kind and Jeremy ‘Porkies’ Hunt, the Culture Secretary of the government, is perhaps an ideal man to collect it.

As Sportingintelligence detailed last year, Hunt was infamously the person who told a meeting of the Cabinet that 2 billion people would watch the wedding of William and Kate. He over-egged the real number by about 10 times. More about that here, and here.

Hunt’s silly – and never substantiated – claim has continued to be repeated as fact, because that’s the way these things work.

None of this is to disparage London’s opening showpiece, because it will be – with no shadow of doubt whatseover – the most watched event in the world this year, by a huge margin.

In Britain, if things go astonishingly well and it truly captures the public imagination, it may get close to the number of people who watched the 1986 Christmas Day episode of soap opera EastEnders when Den left Angie (30.15m), or the number of people who watched character Hilda Ogden leave soap opera Coronation Street on Christmas Day 1987 (26.65m).

Genuinely, if the opening ceremony tops those UK TV moments, it will be a massive coup for host broadcaster, the BBC.

Overall, the ceremony is likely to have a live global TV audience of many hundreds of millions, perhaps even half a billion or more.

The ‘average’ figure of people around the globe who will sit and watch it all as it happens will be hundreds of million – and perhaps 700m will watch at least a part of it. But it won’t reach a billion.

The world has 7 billion people, and they live in 1.9bn households, which on average have 3.68 people in them each.

Of those 1.9bn households, only 1.4bn households have a TV, let alone the internet. And it is the poorer households that tend not to have TV, and they also happen to be the bigger households. So around 2.5bn people don’t even have access to TV.

Let’s also consider the time that the London ceremony will take place: between 8pm and midnight UK time.

Asia will be asleep because it will be the middle of their night. Asia has 4.1bn of the world’s population. The very vast majority of them won’t be watching.

The verifiably most-watched event in human history – and the only “genuine 1bn” event to date – was the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

The “average” audience (those watching the four-hour event whole) was 593m people, many of them within host nation China, the world’s most populous country. China’s 1.3bn population was why the event was so popular. Only 5m people, for example, watched the same event in Britain.

In all, 984m people around the world tuned in for part of that opening 2008 Games ceremony via TV in their own homes, and the 16m balance needed to get to 1bn was almost certainly achieved by people watching around the world in public places.

The 1bn who watched the Beijing ceremony was uniquely big because it was such an enormous deal in the host country, which has a uniquely big population.

The 2012 opener will be huge in Britain (as many as half the population could watch), big in Europe (in the right time zone and with key interested nations like Germany, Italy, France and Spain), relatively small in Asia (because most people will be asleep), so-so across Africa (because relatively few people will have access) and a mixed bag in the Americas.

In the USA, great swathes of the population will be at work (especially on the west coast) or commuting when the ceremony is on, although it is better timed for the east coast. The ceremony won’t be anywhere near as important in America as its most popular event, SuperBowl, which now routinely attracts a USA TV audience of more than 100m people, or something less than a third of all Americans.

An exceptionally massive Olympic ceremony audience in America would be something like half the SuperBowl figure; and probably it will be fewer than 50m people.

In South America, big numbers are expected in Brazil because Brazil will host the 2016 Games and as such has a special interest in London this time. But big numbers will still only be tens of millions at most, not hundreds of millions.

Exaggeration is the norm for viewing figures for major events as vested interests – broadcasters, governing bodies, organisers – make inflated pre-event claims to make themselves look good, and in some cases, try to make money off the back of those claims.

On of my favourite exagerrations was when it was claimed that a Premier League ‘clash of the titans’ match between Manchester United and Arsenal in November 2007 would draw an audience of 1bn globally. The true figure was that 8m people watched the whole match live around the world (1.477m of them in the UK), and 27m people watched at least part of the game. Or in other words, one 37th of the reported audience actually tuned in.

How do we know how many people really watch these things? Because there are authoritative and respected measurement bodies who collate this data. They include BARB in the UK and Nielsen in the USA, and TAM in India and equivalent bodies elsewhere.

Kevin Alavy is now the boss at Future Sports + Entertainment, an arm of leading international analysts Initiative, and has spent years compiling accurate, verifiable data about major events from all the world’s major TV markets.

As I’ve written before, in an industry awash with hype, Alavy’s work has been refreshingly bullshit-free.

I spoke to him this morning and he is certain that Beijing 2008 won’t be topped by London, or come anywhere close to 1bn, let alone 2bn or 3bn or 4bn.

He thinks a figure of 600m to 700m is a credible prediction for the total number of people who might tune in for part, if not all, of the London ceremony, and a lot of those people will be in Europe and a select bunch of large other nations like Brazil and the USA.

‘If your aim was to maximise the live global TV audience, then you’d have the London ceremony in the middle of day, European time,’ Alavy tells me. ‘Then you’d catch a wider share of Asia, which is huge, and Europe, and still get some interested from America.

‘But this isn’t scheduled to get the maximum audience. Even within Britain the audience will be smaller than it could be because it’s going to be on between 9pm and midnight, as opposed to between 7pm and 10pm, for example, which would get a higher figure.’

Alavy doesn’t doubt the ceremony will be the most-watched event of the year in global terms in any genre of viewing.

The Olympic Games are massive and the global interest reflects that. Only the football World Cup and the Olympics truthfully fall into the bracket of events of global interest.

Less certain is what will be the next most watched event of 2012. It might be the closing ceremony. It won’t necessarily be the men’s 100m final, which many people would expect.

‘In China, the biggest audience for actual sport was a women’s volleyball preliminary between China and Cuba,’ Alavy says.

That match drew a global audience of  184m who watched the whole thing, and 450m people who watched part of it. The vast, vast majority of those people were in China, and many of those who weren’t were in Cuba.

And that’s not bollocks.

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