Two billion people and the royal wedding: pretty damned unlikely

Phil Gyford turns a skeptical eye on the much-reprinted claim that two billion people tuned in to watch the royal wedding. As Phil points out, this is a pretty implausible (and unsourced) number, 29.5% of the world's total population. In the UK, 39.6% of the population watched the wedding. For the two billion number to be real, the royal wedding would have to be 75% as popular in every country on earth as it was in the country in which it took place. To evaluate the likelihood of that, consider this: the most-watched TV event in Indian history (the 2011 India vs Sri Lanka cricket world cup final) was watched by 11.7% of India's population — is the British royal wedding likely to be 600% more popular in India than the most-popular TV event in Indian history?

If you ever get that sneaking suspicion that too much of the authoritative-sounding facts in the news are mindlessly made up, it's great when you find evidence of this. Everyone from the Daily Mail and the Sun, through the Croydon Advertiser and Shropshire Star, on to CNN, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian blindly reported that "an estimated two billion people" watched the royal wedding.

Whenever real journalists complain that bloggers — mere amateurs! — couldn't possibly do the work of professionals who have been through proper training, it's exactly this kind of nonsense that permits you to stare at them, silently, before giving a little giggle and walking away.

There are lots of difficult and ambiguous things that anyone, professional or amateur, could understandably get wrong when reporting news. We all make mistakes and many things are complicated. But for all these very professional news outlets to repeat a "fact" that's plainly wrong, without even attributing it to anyone, makes you wonder about everything they write.

Two billion viewers