How big a media event is Friday's royal wedding expected to be?
Consider these numbers:
One estimate predicts more than 2 billion people will watch TV coverage worldwide (a figure, admittedly, tough to verify). That would make these nuptials one of TV's most-watched single events; more than the 700-million who watched the 2010 World Cup soccer final and about three times the 750 million who watched Prince Charles and Lady Diana's 1981 wedding.
Britain's Guardian newspaper reported 8,000 journalists are expected in London for coverage. And for those who miss the live broadcasts, the crown has provided its own webpage, YouTube channel and Twitter feed.
Still, one man remains a skeptic. Bob Thompson, a nationally known professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University, is convinced this deluge of reporting on the wedding of Prince William, 28, and Kate Middleton, 29, is more about a fragmented media culture hyping viewers than anything the audience actually wants.
"This is a good, old classic situation of agenda-setting," Thompson said. "We fell into that romantic narrative for (Prince William's parents, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer) 30 years ago, but then we saw their marriage crumble. I think people are a lot more reluctant to get pulled into the Cinderella story now, when we know how this stuff works."
Tell that to Jason Sauter. When the 24-year-old Orlando man saw an email about a contest to pick a citizen journalist to cover the royal wedding, he forwarded it to his anglophile girlfriend as a joke.
Now he's preparing to join the fray as CNN's citizen journalist iReporter on the street in London.
More importantly, Sauter is convinced this wedding is a major news event. Mostly because women like his girlfriend, Nancy Vidarte, think so too.
"This generation we're in is a generation of girls who grew up watching Harry and William brought up … like N'Sync or the Backstreet Boys, girls have this feeling, like, 'I grew up with them,' " said Sauter, a guest services manager at Walt Disney World. "That age — between 25 and 35 years old — represents a massive piece of our demographic in the United States."
Stateside, women — many of whom are old enough to have watched the 1981 wedding — are expected to dominate the TV audience.
Even as a CBS/New York Times poll estimates that just 6 percent of Americans are following the wedding "very closely," 40 percent of women older than 40 say they are interested. For women younger than 40, that number dips only to one third.
A wide array of media platforms are gearing up to cover an event that is precisely scheduled, highly anticipated and infinitely discussable — perfect conditions for media coverage overload. The monarchy's tight control of information, though, means there's little actual news to report.
More than 40 stand-alone studios were built in the area near Buckingham Palace, to accommodate the big three American networks, the BBC and Al Jazeera English among others, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It's not just the big broadcast networks and cable newschannels, either. The E! entertainment channel, Reelz Channel, the TV Guide channel and Wedding Central channel all plan coverage, featuring commentary from comic Kathy Griffin, cybergossip Perez Hilton and a host of others.
And yes, there's an app for that, as developers have released dozens of programs for Android or Apple smartphones, ranging from 3D tours of the wedding procession route to a program allowing users to dress any member of the wedding party in one of 40 outfits. (Prince Charles looks particularly smashing in Middleton's white lace gown. Really.)
"The people who are really, really interested in this are kind of in the sweet spot for morning television in America," said Rome Hartman, a former executive producer for the CBS Evening News who now serves as executive producer for the U.S.-focused BBC World News America. "If they get the scent of a story that has mass appeal, they're going to give their audience even more than they want. Even until the people who care the most are sick of it."
Even the scheduling of the ceremony feels like it was arranged for American TV. With the procession and wedding ceremony planned from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., it falls in a perfect window for morning television.
But British-born journalist Martin Bashir, known for landing the first interview where Princess Diana detailed her troubled marriage to Prince Charles, cautioned against getting too cynical.
"There's hasn't been a change in the monarchy in the U.K. for some time; the queen is celebrating her 60th year on the throne," he said. "This new couple is seen as the future of the British commonwealth, which covers 54 separate countries."
Bashir says Americans' interest in the monarchy, stoked by generations of storybook fairytales, boils down to one thing: distance.
"People do feel a sense of curiosity and interest in this ancient institution . . . but you don't see their failings," he said. "You don't have to pay for them and you still get to have the vicarious pleasure of seeing how fabulous they are."
Given that the Charles/Diana marriage began so awkwardly — with whispers the significantly older prince already was stepping out on his young wife — there is a sense this union might offer a more stable vision of the monarchy's future.
And in a media age defined by unscripted, so-called reality TV shows, we have a true-life prince choosing his princess from the common people; an in-the-flesh soap opera complete with carriages, rock stars and the loving memory of a beloved, deceased princess from the past.
"It's the kind of pageantry Britain does better than anyone on Earth," said Bashir. "You're going to have full military honors, the guards, the music. Come on — you might as well enjoy it."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Reach Eric Deggans at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.
A worldwide audience
Audience estimates of other major live global broadcasts.
Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, on Sept. 6, 1997, in London
2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony
Prince Charles and Lady Diana's 1981 wedding
Sources: Guinness World Records, Nielsen, NBC
When, where to watch it on TV
Viewers have their choice of network coverage. Even the Weather Channel and TLC will be there. List, 5A
Feeding a royal wedding party?
Considering the early hour, think British breakfast treats like Bubble and Squeak or fruit Bismarcks. Taste, 6E
More wedding coverage online
To get everything you need to know about the event, including photos and video, go to links.tampabay.com.