The recent Royal Wedding can teach us some valuable lessons about the future of television suggests Larry Gerbrandt.
The US viewership numbers are in for the recent telecast of the wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle and they tell a fascinating story on how viewers are still using traditional linear television.
First of all, keep in mind that in the US the royal wedding coverage began at 7am on a Saturday morning on the East Coast, which was 4am on the West Coast…not exactly prime time viewing. Live coverage was carried on 15 different networks, with an aggregate of 29.2m viewers according to Nielsen estimates. The US TV universe for the 2017-18 TV season is pegged at 304.5m, which translates to an effective rating of 9.6. In comparison, the 2011 wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton drew a total of 22.8m US viewers.
The breakdown of viewing to the largest TV outlets are as follows:
NBC = 6.42m
ABC = 6.35m
CBS = 4.79m
Fox News = 1.9m
CNN = 1.8m
MSNBC = 1.0m
In contrast, Tubefilter reports YouTube served 11.2m unique streams and at its peak some 1.29m people watched it concurrently. These numbers are not directly comparable to the US TV numbers since they may include significant amounts of non-US distribution, but it still provides a sense of the impact social media is having even on live news coverage. Tubefilter also noted that the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton topped out at 2m concurrent streams in 2016 and Beyoncé’s wildly popular set at Coachella 2018 topped out at 458K concurrent viewers.
Taking a step further back, the 29.2m royal wedding viewers tops the 26.5m viewer tally for the 2018 Academy Awards, though both of those benchmarks were lower than the 32.9m viewers for the 2017 Academy Awards broadcast. (An unsolicited hint to the Academy Awards—consider hiring the royal wedding planners for your next broadcast to keep the show running on time and celebrity egos in check).
The wedding coverage delivered—in aggregate—an audience almost equal to the US average prime time audience on the Big Four networks:
CBS = 9.385m
ABC = 5.911m
FOX = 5.892m
Total = 30.757m*
*Nielsen estimates Sep 25, 2017-Feb 11, 2018.
The ultimate comparison is to the annual US ratings juggernaut: The National Football League Super Bowl championship game. In 2018, the broadcast drew 103.4m, though that was down significantly from the 113.0m viewers for the 2017 Super Bowl broadcast.
So what are the lessons from this data assemblage? The first is that with all the hype (and bright future for) next-gen video outlets like YouTube, viewers overwhelmingly chose linear TV as their preferred medium. I also wonder how many YouTube viewers decided that at 4am it might be easier to curl up in a warm bed with a smartphone or tablet than get up and turn on the TV set in the living room. Nonetheless, at 1.29m peak concurrent viewers, YouTube compares favourably to the three 24-hour US cable news channels. Wouldn’t be surprised if a YouTube News 24-hour feed wasn’t on a white board somewhere at headquarters.
Equally as interesting, given that American viewers had their choice of 15 channels for coverage, that the Big Three broadcast networks still got the lion’s share (60%) of viewing. Broadcast viewing has been eroding for three decades but is still, in aggregate, a force to be reckoned with and one advertisers aren’t likely to abandon any time soon. The fact that the top two networks—NBC and ABC—outdistanced the field may have a lot to do with the fact that NBC’s Today show and ABC’s Good Morning America are also the two top-rated weekday morning news programmes and the wedding coverage featured many of the same commentators may have been a factor. Both shows heavily promoted their wedding coverage plans in the run-up.
The hidden hand behind all the coverage was social media. The full stats may never be fully understood, but between Facebook and Twitter it felt like everyone on the planet was able to express an opinion…or probe every facial expression glimpsed in ceremony’s video feed. This emerging Fifth Estate, the court of public opinion, has the capacity to become the dominant voice in event coverage. It is also not surprising that the Russians couldn’t resist the temptation to harness some of its power to influence the last US presidential election.