Did a Billion People Watch the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about the Olympics and Olympians and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Olympic urban legends featured so far.

OLYMPIC URBAN LEGEND: A billion people watched the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics.

Back in 2012, viewers were given a treat for their eyes and ears with the sensational opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England. With a presentation designed and coordinated by Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle, the spectacle (titled Isles of Wonder) took viewers on a journey through England’s past, present and future, complete with references to pretty much all of the greatest achievements in British history, not to mention a strong dose of British popular culture, from a horde of Mary Poppins battling a giant Voldemort from the Harry Potter books to James Bond escorting the Queen of England to the ceremony via parachute to Rowan Atkinson parodying Chariots of Fire, seemingly no piece of British entertainment was untouched. Listeners were treated to an audio cornucopia of classic British music, from the Rolling Stones to the Kinks to the Jam to David Bowie to the Beatles, with a final musical performance from perhaps the most famous living British musician, Sir Paul McCartney.

The ceremony received near universal acclaim. Danny Boyle clearly did his country proud. However, there was one thing that I couldn’t help but notice while watching the broadcast. The announcers on NBC kept mentioning that “a billion people” were watching the ceremony. This figure seemed to permeate the coverage of the event. In the Daily Mail, an article on the event opened with, “For many, it was the most stunning and captivating opening ceremony to any Olympic Games. More than one billion people around the world watched Danny Boyle’s astonishing and fantastical journey through British history which kicked off the London 2012 Games” (emphasis added). Is that true? Did a billion people really watch the opening ceremony? Let’s find out…

To get to the bottom of the issue, I called up Kevin Alavy, Managing Direcgtor of the London-based Future Sports + Entertainment, a top sports consulting firm, who specialize in compiling accurate data on all aspects of the world of sports, including TV data from around the world.

The first thing Alavy felt that we needed to define was what, exactly, constitutes a viewer? This seems like a simple question, but the parsing of this simple word can help mask all sorts of bold claims. For instance, let us say that you turned on SportsCenter this morning. They put on highlights from the Chicago White Sox/Minnesota Twins game from last night. You now saw a part of the White Sox/Twins game. Would you then count as a “viewer” of that game? You did see part of the game, right? So if you go by that definition – anyone who saw a news clip of the opening ceremony counts as a viewer, then obviously you can reach one billion viewers easily. The opening ceremony was a major story all over the world, so naturally people across the globe watched a bit of it on either their daily news broadcast or on their computers. I think it is fairly safe to say, though, that such a definition for “viewer” would be so misleading that it would be useless for quantification purposes.

No, when we say “viewer,” we think someone who actually watched the actual broadcast of the opening ceremony, whether it be live or like the United States did it, on tape delay so that the event could air in prime time. Even there, there is a question between counting people who watched a few minutes versus people who watched the entirety of the four hour event. However, I think it is fair to count people who watched any of the event. So going by that criteria, did a billion people watch the ceremonies?

No, no they did not. Alavy noted that a big problem with optimizing the viewership for the ceremonies is the time in which the event aired. The show aired between 8 pm and midnight in England. In Asia, that is the middle of the night. In South America, it is in the middle of the day. Viewing events on tape delay is a uniquely American innovation, so for the rest of the world, if they tuned in to the opening ceremony it would have to be at odd hours. Heck, as Alavy noted, even in England it was not aired at a time for them to optimize viewership, as if the event aired earlier there would have been more viewers. In England, the event ended up doing great numbers, though, with over 22 million viewers, good enough for the thirteenth most watched program in British history. In the United States, it was seen by 42 million viewers, the most ever for a non-U.S. Olympics opening ceremony. Those are great numbers. They just are not going to help a whole lot if your goal is a billion viewers.

The only verifiable “billion viewers” television event was the opening ceremony for the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008. That is almost certainly where the billion figure is coming from this time around. A sort of “they had a billion people watch, so we must get a billion, too!” However, the Beijing opening ceremony was a unique event. It was a source of massive pride in China, which happens to be the most populous country in the world. It aired at a time when all of China could easily tune in (as could the rest of Asia) and Chinese viewers made up the bulk of the viewership. Even there, less than a billion people watched the event on their own televisions (the remaining 16 million viewer difference was made up by counting people who watched the ceremony at public gatherings).

Alavy estimates that the event might realistically have been viewed by as many as 700 million viewers, which is obviously outstanding. It is just that even that is a bit of a stretch and a billion viewers just is not an accurate claim.

The odd thing about this is that the opening ceremony was a great success. It was the world’s most watched television event of the year. The ratings that the Olympics got in the United States were staggering. NBC got viewership it had not seen since the Bill Cosby and the Huxtables were being watched by seemingly every American during the mid-1980s. The Olympics and the opening ceremony in particular did very, very well. There is nothing to be ashamed at here. There was no need to make up numbers when the real numbers are so excellent.

The legend is…

STATUS: False

Thanks so much to Kevin Alavy for his great help. Be sure to check out Future Sports + Entertainment (here is their website). Thanks to Nick Harris at Sporting Intelligence for more information (Nick has a great piece here on a similar claim that the Olympics as a whole would be watched by 4 billion people). And thanks to Alice-Azania Jarvis for the Daily Mail quote.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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