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The Billion Dollar Question

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Roger Mosey | 16:21 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

It's often said there are only three events that are guaranteed the biggest global audiences: Olympic Games, World Cups - and major British Royal landmarks.

We'll find out in the next few days just how much a Royal Wedding unites Britain and the wider world, and this isn't a post that's going to compare relative audiences because we know all three are huge.

But I want to share a few thoughts about the art of viewing figures and then about what links these events in a digital age.

The key recommendation about audience figures is always to have a degree of scepticism.

My favourite was an international event that claimed its total viewership was actually larger than the entire world population by a factor of about 4, but there are many telecasts that like the "watched by one billion" figure.

Fireworks over the Olympic Stadium at the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony

The Beijing 2008 opening ceremony came close to the billion mark

The Academy Awards is one of them, and there was this splendid piece in the New Yorker a few years back introducing some rigour.

Similarly with the Super Bowl, which multiple journalists have claimed is "viewed by one billion worldwide" but where there was a challenge from CNN.

An additional point here is that there's potentially a massive difference between "watched live" and "saw". A live audience in the UK to the Oscars is vanishingly low because it's on pay TV in the early hours of the morning; but in fairness more will see the clips of the winners making their teary speeches in later news bulletins on BBC, ITV and Sky.

Even then some figures don't add up. There was this piece in 2007 saying that "one billion" (that number again) had watched Arsenal v Man United at the Emirates.

Now, a typical Premier League live audience in the UK is around 2 million - and the highlights on Match Of The Day will reach a further 4 million.

News bulletins showing the goals might add the same again. But you still only get to maybe 20% of the UK population seeing the key action, so it stretches credibility to expect it to reach a total of one thousand million people globally - especially given the relative lack of interest in football in markets like the United States or India.

The line to be wary of is an estimate of how content is "available" in a certain number of households.

Most of us now have a choice of hundreds of channels in our home but we watch only a handful.

So "being available" and "being watched" are not the same thing, and almost nothing is watched live by a billion people.

The most credible candidates are the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony - which had an "audited" figure just a little below that - and the funeral of the Princess of Wales, which is usually estimated to have been watched by around 750m.

As for what links these kind of events: what we can see is that audience behaviour is going in two ways.

On the one hand, there's more fragmentation than ever before - more personalisation, more choice, more channels, more content you create yourself.

On the other hand, people still seem to crave those moments that unite and where you feel part of a bigger experience - and in the UK that can be anything from Strictly Come Dancing to the major sporting moments and Royal ceremonial.

Here at the BBC it's one of our central commitments to the public that we're the place where as many as possible of these events are experienced free-to-air by the greatest numbers.

Our research suggests that people still want a sense of community amid the vastness of digital space, and if we didn't have these common experiences then our belief is we'd all be the poorer.

It's something we'll be putting to the test both this week - and for pretty much the whole of next year.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Has the BBC ever considered about an internet subscription licence fee for expacts who want to watch sports (that is not sold to some certain countries) and even BBC programs such as Dr Who, Strictly etc? With todays technology, you would expect this to be possible as I find it very annoying that living in Finland, I can't watch any 6 nations rugby or the Grand National. It would mean the viewing figures would be bigger for smaller events and after buying the TV licence for years, it would be a nice gesture from the BBC to ofer a service like this. I know it is not always possible due to a Finnish TV company owning the rights in Finland, but i think there is a market when no one has bought the rights. Maybe I should buy the tv rights myself - would this be possible?

  • Comment number 2.

    Our research suggests that people still want a sense of community amid the vastness of digital space, and if we didn't have these common experiences then our belief is we'd all be the poorer.

    So how does this research explain the BBCs decision to remove 606 that provided a sense of community for sports fans even with the WUMs?

    There are few things that are now must see live TV with iplayer & pvr technology

  • Comment number 3.

    use all the legacy cash to save 606 ,get the 40mill back off WHam or make Wumming an olympic sport . At least you wouldnt need a sky subscription and 3 weeks after the Olympics everyone wouldnt have forgotten about it

  • Comment number 4.

    Mpjacko in #1 - rights are usually sold territory by territory, and there isn't really a process when an event isn't bought in a particular country. But look out for the launch of the BBC global iPlayer which should deliver at least some of the general programming you want.

    Hainba in #2 - I agree with your final point except that the "few things" that are must-see live tv are getting bigger, while pvr use for other content is growing sharply too.

  • Comment number 5.

    Having been requested to leave the Woolwich Olympic Site, immediately. I will be taking no further part in the 2012 Olympics.
    Media stats, projections and yields are meaningless to me.
    While the Games are on, I'll be ploughing through my DVD collection. I'll let you know how I get on.
    What was I going to do for the 2012 Olympics. I was going to photographically chronicle the £18million pounds Woolwich build & demolition for posterity. It certainly isn't going to happen now.
    What pictures are my forte. Obviously Shooting Pictures.
    Her Majesty The Queen's Prize

  • Comment number 6.

    Dear Roger you should remove the kneecaps of whoever lumbered you with this topic.People will care passionately about the Olympics,for 5 mins before it starts .all through and till the closing ceremony. Upon which everyone will move on . If only paying for it would stop that promptly!!

  • Comment number 7.

    I think if you added a charity telethon spectacular a la Live Aid you might get similar global figures. Remember, that when Geldof did it most of it was done just by him. If there was ever a reason to do one planned by professionals but retaining the elemental energy of one man/woman on a mission from God, who knows how many it might reach?

  • Comment number 8.

    Rjaggar in #7: it's possible, but music can be polarising as well as unifying - and to get the biggest numbers you have to perform spectacularly in the one billion plus markets like China and India.

    Meanwhile, the figures for the royal wedding show that over half the UK population watched some of the BBC's event coverage or subsequent news programming - a total of 34m across the day. Here's an external take on the average live audience figures and the wider picture:
    http://www.thedrum.co.uk/news/2011/05/02/21150-royal-wedding-ratings-did-the-world-tune-in-/

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Roger,

    I am interested in working with the BBC on 3D Hi-Motion presentation and footage for the Skeet and Trap (clay shooting) disciplines for the 2012 Olympic Games.
    I think it will transform these and many other events and show the BBC as a leader of sporting OB's.

 

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