The Queen’s death and coverage of her funeral will top the most-watched shows in British television history, while newspaper publishers have seen an unprecedented surge in sales as mourners seek out commemorative copies. And yet, the biggest national event in decades will not provide a commercial windfall for media companies.
ITV has planned its biggest outdoor broadcast ever, with all of its channels simultaneously broadcasting live, commercial-free coverage for the first time in history. The day of the funeral will also be the first time in Channel 4’s four decades on the air that it has instituted a 24-hour advertising block on its channels.
The BBC, which as the country’s favorite for coverage of major events is expected to capture the lion’s share of tens of millions of viewers, has entrusted flagship channels BBC One and BBC Two with the day-of-funeral broadcast. Channel 4, Sky and Channel 5 also commit significant resources and airtime.
All of this means that the total national reach of the event, the number of individual viewers watching at least some of the coverage, could exceed that of two of the most-watched live TV events of all time – the victory of the England at the 1966 World Cup and the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. in 1997.
Viewing will be further boosted by the ceremony being held on a hastily announced holiday, especially as there will be a semi-national closure of businesses reminiscent of closures during the coronavirus pandemic with businesses in cinemas and supermarkets at Primark and McDonald’s remaining closed.
“There’s no way it’s not huge,” says Boyd Hilton, entertainment director at multimedia magazine Heat. “It will last so long, so many people will get to see at least some of it, and there will be a peak moment that will be in this area of record numbers.”
Audience aggregator Overnights.tv estimated that the day the Queen died already topped the charts for total reach, with 33 million viewers tuning in to the BBC and major news channels between noon and 2 a.m. However, the channel’s peak viewership at one point was just 9.83million – at 6.30pm on BBC One around the time of the official announcement.
Mass media televised events are usually cash cows for commercial broadcasters, with 30-second commercial breaks in an X Factor final or an England game in the latter stages of a major football tournament rising to hundreds of thousands of pounds. However, there was a total blackout of television advertising following the Queen’s death, in accordance with a memorandum of understanding with Buckingham Palace, for most of the weekend.
This pause, which has also been instituted by almost all media owners in the UK, including newspapers and radio stations on digital platforms such as Snapchat and Twitter and outdoor advertising giants such as JCDecaux and Clear Channel, will be implemented again on Monday for the funeral.
After the first advertising blackout, adverts were removed from all news and royal-themed programs on television during the mourning period, with similar restrictions followed by most other media. The TV companies have also checked all other advertisements and sponsorships to ensure that no “insensitive or inappropriate” content is shown, such as promotions for funeral services.
“We are talking about the loss of millions and millions of pounds of advertising for media owners,” says a senior executive at a UK media agency. “It’s kind of like the mass media event that never was commercially.”
However, for newspapers, the Queen’s death gave a huge boost to sales, as mourners purchased commemorative print editions. Publishers rushed to increase circulations for Friday editions after the news broke on Thursday evening, to meet the expected surge in demand, although the Daily Mail missed a deadline to secure an ambitious 450 000 additional copies for retailers.
According to a senior media executive, national titles had one of the biggest weekly increases in percentage of sales that Friday. “Obviously the overall sales volumes aren’t what they used to be, but proportionately this is one of the biggest increases we’ve ever seen,” the executive said. “I wouldn’t put it on the table as the biggest of all time for some headline – bigger than William and Kate’s 2011 wedding, Obama’s coming to power, Brexit, Mandela or Thatcher’s death – it was bigger.”
Newsquest managing director Henry Faure Walker, who manages 160 local titles from the Glasgow Herald and Oxford Mail to the Brighton Argus and Darlington Echo, expects another spike after the funeral.
“We saw the biggest increase in newspaper sales for a Friday in recent memory, or frankly in memory,” he says, estimating that sales rose 25% to 35% on the Friday after the Queen died. “A lot of our markets sold out, we probably could have sold more. We expect another significant sales boost on Tuesday when another memorial issue comes out after the funeral.
Faure Walker expects national newspaper titles to have done even better sales because, like the BBC, the public tends to turn to them for national events. However, the loss of so much advertising revenue and the huge additional costs associated with using so many extra pages and supplements – newsprint prices have seen their biggest increase in 25 years – means that there is no didn’t have a golden business opportunity.
Newsquest’s 27 daily titles each published an additional 24-page supplement after the Queen’s death and will be expanded again for Tuesday’s edition, Faure Walker said. “You might not think so given the magnitude of such an event, but overall I would say there was a marginal negative financial impact.”