TORONTO – More than 60 years ago, when 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth wed her naval officer suitor, the royal nuptials were captured on black-and-white footage that had to be put on a plane and flown to Canada so that citizens could watch newsreels of the joyous occasion.
Thirty years ago, when Queen Elizabeth’s son, Prince Charles, wed Lady Diana Spencer in an opulent ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the fairytale splendour was broadcast live on television to an estimated 750 million people around the world, but notably missed large regions of the globe including China, Russia and parts of Africa, notes Eugene Berezovsky of the Monarchist League of Canada.
On Friday, when Charles’s son Prince William marries his university sweetheart Kate Middleton, the much-heralded event will be beamed instantly to an estimated two billion TV watchers and tweeted, blogged and streamed to an estimated half-billion more online.
“It’s going to be really hard living in the U.S. or Canada to probably go through two days without seeing a portion of this,” says media expert Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
So much has changed in the way media covers live events in the past three decades.
This year, most major networks are offering live streaming in addition to live TV coverage, beginning as early as 2 a.m. ET (in the case of CBC).
Meanwhile, palace officials are offering four hours of live streaming on YouTube that will include the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, the procession to Buckingham Palace and the newlyweds’ balcony appearance when they’re expected to share their first public kiss.
William’s press office is also set to provide a live blog with commentary and additional footage.
Back in 1981, a handful of TV networks brought the Charles and Diana wedding to viewers.
“CNN, 24-hour news had only been on 13 months when that wedding happened. MSNBC, Fox News, those didn’t exist,” Thompson says.
“There was no Internet, there wasn’t any of that kind of stuff so the information we were getting, most people were only hearing about that from pretty mainstream kinds of sources.”
Those limited options made catching the last wedding of the century must-see TV for royal watchers like Milena Santoro, who was 11 at the time.
Now an Edmonton-based wedding planner, Santoro recalls settling in to watch the spectacle with her parents, who popped in a Beta cassette tape to record the ceremony for posterity.
“I remember seeing Diana in her train being eight metres long and the taffeta and the pearls and the lace that was on her dress and her six-pound bouquet and her tiara and all of that,” says Santoro, who says she later watched the tape “over and over until it exploded.”
“It’s all vivid in my mind.”
She’ll be watching Friday’s nuptials from a wedding-themed viewing party she’s throwing at an Edmonton hotel, one of several being held across the country to allow Canadians to feel part of the celebration.
Santoro says she’s sold about half of the available 200 tickets to her 3 a.m. event, which will feature a piper and RCMP march, a flag ceremony, wedding games, a best hat prize, an English-style breakfast, and, of course, a wedding cake. Proceeds will go to a local children’s hospital and food bank.
Thompson expects most people in North America will catch the wedding after the fact, largely because it will be so easy to find footage in so many different mediums. Media fatigue already seems to be settling in for many people, he says.
“I get a sense from people on the street there’s a lot less interest in this (wedding),” he says, comparing it to the buzz on the street for Charles and Diana.
“When the subject comes up they’re complaining about too much media coverage. It’s a much more cynical sort of approach to it.”
That in large part has to do with the barrage of pre-wedding fever that has been mounting for months, he says, noting that U.S. morning shows started a countdown clock well ahead of the big day while a plethora of specialty channels are dedicating a week of programming to Will and Kate.
Add to that the scandalous collapse of Charles and Diana’s union and the average viewer appears less willing to buy into the storybook fantasy this time around, he says.
“We are a lot more cynical about a lot of things, including perhaps weddings in general,” says Thompson.
“We’ve all got this sense, not only from the statistics we hear but the people we know, that most weddings in fact don’t end well.”
And while Charles and Diana were wildly popular in their day, Berezovsky questions whether Will and Kate have resonated as deeply, describing them as “a celebrity couple swimming in a much bigger pool of celebrities.”
The information age has also removed a lot of the Disney sheen from the royals, he notes.
“We know more about Will and Kate and we understand that these are human beings — they have ups and downs and they’ll impress us one day and disappoint us the next. We’re prepared for that. And so we’re prepared to take them on a more kind of grounded level.”
There is also little left to know about the wedding itself, says Berezovsky, who notes that gossipy tidbits have emerged in a steady stream since the engagement was announced, leaving few details to be discovered Friday.
“It takes some of the magic out of it because there’s really very few surprises come wedding day,” says Berezovsky.
“We know exactly what to expect — we know the parade route, we know what car she’s going to drive…. I don’t think anyone is going to be blown away because we’re very well-conditioned for what we’re about to receive.”
Thompson says he’s skeptical of predictions that two billion will tune in for the union, a figure that accounts for more than a third of the global population.
But he doesn’t doubt that ratings will be significant. The wedding is particularly tailor-made for online social media sites, he says, expecting services including Twitter, YouTube and gossip blogs to be flooded with snarky comments and parodies.
Santoro says she’ll be among the fans soaking up the romance in all sincerity, noting she recalls when William and his brother Harry were born and feels a tinge of nostalgia as her “baby” starts a new chapter.
“People were saying why don’t you just record it and then we’ll throw a party after? But that’s not the point because I can watch this after anyways I’m going to record it anyways,” she says.
“The point is we’re going to live it together — we’re going to go through that, we’re going to hear it first hand together as a nation, as the global people of the prince and princess, you know what I mean? It’s a novelty and it’s great.”