26 Billion People Watching the World Cup: True?

An employee of a TV shop adjusts screens during the the World Cup group B soccer match between South Korea in South Africa, on Saturday, June 12, 2010, in Zurich, Switzerland.
AP
An employee of a TV shop adjusts screens during the the World Cup group B soccer match between South Korea in South Africa, on Saturday, June 12, 2010, in Zurich, Switzerland.
AP

The world is watching the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. All 26 billion people have already tuned in -- we are hearing on the news.

But really? Did you hear that right?

Incredibly, viewers and bloggers worldwide seems to listen right past the coverage on cable and broadcast news coverage and read right past the blogs, so excited about the Olympian event. The only problem is that the world's background on itself seems a bit less well endowed than the knowledge of the sport of the world cup.

The last time the U.N. and U.S. took note of the world's population, it was about 6.8 or 6.9 billion people - far short of 26 or 30 billion people who are watching the world cup matches.

To be fair, FIFA, the International Association of Football Associations put out the following statistic: "The cumulative audience of the 64 matches of the 2010 FIFA World Cup is expected to be in excess of 26 billion."

And, the cable and networks took it from there. CNN International rounded up and reported: "At a cost of $125 million becoming a partner of the FIFA World Cup means forking out big bucks. But not when you consider the nearly three million stadium attendees and the 30 billion potential TV viewers globally." And, to be more accurate, they also wrote that "26 billion people will watch the World Cup on their television over the month-long tournament..."

Talking about the Italy match all the way back in 1990, Sports Illustrated seemed to use the new number and wrote that "26 billion of us watched..."

ABC.net said, "Here are the numbers - around 26 billion people tuned in during the last tournament, from 240 different countries. And half a million people are expected to rock up to South Africa in person to watch it live."

One smart blogger wrote: "I just saw GMA report 26 BILLION would watch the World Cup. Really? Are they counting whales and giraffes? The earth population is only 6.7 Billion."

And the list goes on, sometimes with financial blogs and investment advisors running with a misinterpretation of a complicated cumulative number that FIFA put out.

What FIFA meant is that a lot of people will watch many times, but somehow networks, cable broadcasts, and blogs, transformed that information regarding cumulative viewings into 26 billion people.....an impossible fact.

The point is not to name names of network and cable mistakes, but to remark about how many viewers were able to believe (no poll numbers but a quick view of the blogs) that 26 billion people are watching.

And the "learning moment," if there is one, is that with the economic stories, the financial scandals and all the information we as a TV-watching and TV-informing business, news organizations have to realize that the "b" and the "m" in billion and million and "cumulative audience" and people are meshing in many people's eyes.

So maybe all 26 billion of us could learn an important lesson.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.