Queen Elizabeth’s funeral is going to be a TV event of a lifetime for many. But could it be one the last great events of the TV era?




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The BBC describes the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 as “the event that, more than any other, helped to transform television into a mainstream medium”.

Fittingly, then, that her funeral on Monday marked the end of the television dominance that began when she ascended the throne.

Back then, the lack of mainstream television meant viewers would gather in friends’ living rooms, churches and other public spaces to watch the coronation, creating a shared broadcast experience and sense of history.

Now, the rift between social media and television in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s death has highlighted how new media is changing culture. The Queen has often been discussed and in many cases denounced on social media for British colonial history and her handling of royal scandals. Television, meanwhile, largely stuck to a script of loving remembrance and celebration of her 70-year reign, particularly within the first 24 hours. The social media narrative challenged and perhaps even altered the one initially shown on television.

Yet despite all the revolutionary media disruptions and fragmentations already caused by the Internet, television remains the primary storyteller of national life in countries like the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“Yes, the Queen’s coronation was the epoch-making moment that made Britons realize that television was the essential piece of furniture of modern life… and the glue that glued post-war British culture,” said Thomas Doherty, media and cultural historian at the Brandeis University.

While acknowledging massive shifts in the media landscape between 1953 and today, he nonetheless added, “I think the final goodbyes and eulogies will have huge audiences — the drama, the pageantry, the ritual … a universal shared experience, from.” who lives television.”

In this June 2, 1953 file photo, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II sits on a throne during her coronation in London.

Predicting a huge television audience for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral seems like a safe bet, at least in Britain, where the line to see her coffin at Westminster Hall was five miles on Friday morning and mourners were temporarily turned away. On Friday afternoon, the UK government’s live queue tracker indicated mourners would have to wait at least 22 hours to see Queen Elizabeth lying in state.

Audience predictions for the US are a more complicated matter, partly due to the five-hour time difference between the UK and America’s Eastern Time zone. CNN, for example, will begin broadcasting live TV coverage on Monday at 5:00am ET, which is 10:00am in the UK.

The BBC will stream the events from the opening of Westminster Hall at 8am UK time. Cover includes funeral and delivery services. It will be the first time cameras will be allowed at a monarch’s funeral. The BBC’s coverage will be available both on television and on its website, where it will be available worldwide.

The time difference between US and UK viewers, as well as weekday working hours, could result in more Americans watching the funeral later in the day on internet and social media videos than on live television. Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University, believes the time difference is enough to affect Monday’s viewership.

“The time difference will make a big difference, and yes, people will take advantage of the time difference, something that started in 1981 with clever VCR owners for Charles and Diana’s wedding and is a lot easier now,” Thompson said.

Though Thompson expects a “very large” audience, he doesn’t see it proportionally competing with the 1953 Coronation.

“I don’t think this funeral can possibly capture global attention like the 1953 coronation – or even the 1981 wedding. There may be more spectators, but there are also more people. The identity and positioning of the monarchy is very different from less than a decade after World War II, and the menu of things people could look to was much, much smaller then.”

During the Queen’s inauguration in 1953, full coverage was delayed for Americans. NBC and CBS News, the two leading television news outlets of the era, filmed the events in Britain and then flew the footage across the Atlantic to show on the networks, according to the June 10, 1953 issue of Variety magazine.

And yet, according to the BBC, the coronation coverage found an audience of 85 million viewers in the US.

A notable aspect of the way American networks packaged their reporting concerned the inclusion of commercials. According to Doherty, this had a profound impact on the way television developed in Britain compared to America.

“Of course, when the coronation films were shown on American television, the networks sold commercials,” Doherty said. “And the British were upset that cigarette adverts were disrespectfully close to Her Majesty. This has helped reinforce the British view that television should continue to be state funded and paid for through taxes on the television set, and has discouraged them from considering a commercial television model like ours.”

While both Thompson and Doherty appreciate the growing power of digital media and acknowledge that television’s days as the prime storyteller are coming to an end, neither believe Monday’s funeral will mark the end of the television era.

“I don’t think the Queen’s departure will mark the medium’s swan song,” Doherty said. “If something like 9/11 happened again, we would all go to our televisions – drawn in by the simultaneity and universality of the collective experience and the hypnotic power of the bigger picture.”

Thompson agreed, “I don’t think the funeral will be the last major global event of the television era,” he said. “But unfortunately, the major global televised events of the future are likely to be catastrophes: an assassination, a terrorist attack, an intentional or accidental nuclear event, a major natural disaster, a pandemic, a coup in a major North American democracy – something everyone will have to watch.”



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