At one point during the (very boring) Oscars last night, Ellen Degeneris quipped that the stars nominated shouldn’t be nervous since there were “a billion people watching right now.” Al Gore also referenced the billion person number in his fake announcement of his presidential campaign One press release for some sort of drink included in the nominees’ gift basket even claimed two billion watchers.
No one is better than Hollywood at making the impossible seem possible I guess. One billion viewers? That’s one in six people in the world, simultaneously watching the Oscars. I don’t think so.
Consider a few facts. First, according to the CIA World Factbook, there are approximately 1.4 billion TVs in the world, with approximately 540 million of these in China, Japan, and India, and 219 million in the United States. For the sake of simplicity, I assume that one TV equals one TV watcher (some people will watch with friends, some people have multiple TVs, which reduces the actual count).
I find it hard to believe that more than 1 or 2% of Asia was watching the Oscars, if for no other reason than the time difference, which ranges between 10 and 15 hours. That means the most of Asia was either a) sleeping or b) working (Monday morning) during the Oscars. Having recently been to Bangalore, I’m confident that few people took the day off to watch the red carpet. So of those 540 million TV sets, let’s assume that maybe 11 million of them were watching the Oscars.
Then we have the US – 219 million TVs for 300 million people. Again, not all 300 million people were watching the Oscars. I know this because I went and got carry-out pizza and there were people working at the pizza store, people driving their cars, and people shopping.
And of course, there are also a lot of folks who just don’t like watching the Oscars, are too young (infants!) or too old, or too sick, or too busy, or just plain forgot. I would say that if 1/3 of America was watching the Oscars – 100 million people! – that would be quite impressive. So let’s target the US at 100 million.
That leaves 700 million TV sets throughout the world. Most of these are in Europe – another time zone issue, and only one of the top 10 other than the US is English-speaking (the UK). Let’s aggressively say that 5% of the world stayed up late to watch the Oscars. That’s another 35 million people.
So that gives us a grand total of 144 million people. Not too shabby, but certainly not one or two billion. And, in fact, people have actually stopped to think about this ridiculous claim have come to similar estimates, like this article discussing Oscar’s fabled audience. And actually, my estimate might be way overinflated. The USA Today reports that viewership in the US was only 40 million, the lowest overall performance in 20 years. It seems doubtful that viewership was higher outside the US than inside.
There has been a lot of talk lately about how TV is no longer the mass-medium it once was – with the expansion of digital media, TV viewership is decreasing at an incredible pace. So “TV events” like the Oscars and the Super Bowl are often perceived as one of the few opportunities left to reach everyone at once.
I wonder, then, if there isn’t some intentional puffery in the one billion viewer claim. It’s an attempt to preserve the notion that TV still matters as much as it did, say, 20 years ago. After all, with major Internet sites like Yahoo and Google getting over 100 million unique visitors a month, it’s no longer that impressive to boast the Oscars – one of the two biggest events in the annual TV calendar – reach 50 or 60 million people. Hey, Yahoo does almost three times that monthly. In fact, if you advertise on Yahoo and Google, you probably reach more targeted customers in a day then you would reach with an Oscars advertisement.
I wonder if the radio industry did the same thing in the 1940s, back when TV was emerging as the next mass medium? Hollywood still knows how to draw people into theaters, but even the best special effects artist will have trouble masking the fall of TV and the rise of digital media.