The Ultimate Reality Show

The royal wedding is expected to command the biggest audience in TV history. Inside the explosion of movies, talk show coverage and princess shows; 'blue-blood boot camp'

The last royal wedding, between Princess Diana and Prince Charles was the most-watched television event. The attention will be nothing compared to what's expected when their son William marries Kate Middleton next month, Amy Chozick reports.

London

Thirty years ago this July, Lady Diana Spencer, dressed in a pale-ivory taffeta gown of pearls and crinoline with a 25-foot train, traveled from Buckingham Palace to St. Paul's Cathedral to marry Charles, Prince of Wales. At the time, it was the biggest live television event in history, watched by 750 million viewers world-wide.

Compared with the crowd their son is expecting April 29, that's nothing.

Very little will have changed about the ceremony itself—the pomp and circumstance hasn't evolved much in centuries—but there will be profound changes in how the proceedings will be recorded and consumed.

Timeline: A Royal Romance

Track the eight-year courtship of Prince William and Kate Middleton -- from St. Andrews to the ski slopes of Switzerland.

An estimated two billion TV viewers will see all or part of the coverage of Prince William and his longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton exchanging vows at Westminster Abbey. Add an expected 400 million for online streaming and radio and the number swells to nearly 35% of the world's population. An additional 800,000 observers likely will crowd outside Buckingham Palace the day of the event, many of them tweeting and Facebook posting and shooting video with their phones.

In 1981, the U.S. was still largely a three-network nation. Cable was in its infancy, VCRs even younger. There was no Internet, virtually no cellphone technology, no social media. In the U.K. BBC1 began the wedding day with a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. Tweets was the name of a band on the U.K. charts with a hit called "The Birdie Song."

The explosion of new media options will be put on vivid display, even as the main event will still consist of chiming church bells, choreographed kisses and pastel feathered hats. For something that will take only six hours, broadcasters and cable channels are finding hundreds of ways to slice, dice and piggyback on the big event with reality shows, documentary specials, and at least two made-for-TV cable movies.

Associated Press

The media work the William and Kate engagement story last November.

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Royals

Broadcast networks will air earnest documentaries about the monarchy; TLC will air 89 hours of programming that will include "Extreme Royal Collections," a variation on its popular "Hoarding" reality show dedicated to collectors of royal memorabilia. Wedding episodes of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" will air on E!

The nature of this particular narrative helps. "It really is a Cinderella story and that hits the sweet spot of female audiences," says Barbara Walters, who covered Princess Diana's wedding and funeral for ABC and will spend a week in London ahead of the wedding to host "20/20" special "William & Catherine: A Modern Fairy Tale."

Cashing In on Royal Kitsch

Since the announcement of Prince William's engagement to Kate Middleton, the public's love affair with the happy couple has continued to grow, and many businesses are jockeying to cash in on the big day.

AFP/Getty Images

Lady Di may have become an unrivaled star of the celebrity culture, but at this stage, Ms. Middleton is more accessible, says Ms. Walters. The 29-year-old brunette was dubbed "Waity Katie" by the British tabloids during the couple's long courtship, and beamed confidently in a royal-blue dress for a deluge of camera flashes during her Nov. 16 engagement announcement. Diana, by contrast, was an overwhelmed, unknown quantity. "She was barely 20. Charles was 32. She was a schoolgirl virgin," Ms. Walters says.

TV wedding specialists—there are a surprising number—are over the moon. "On a scale of one to 10 in big TV events, this is a 10 plus, plus," says Kim Martin, president and general manager of WE tv and Wedding Central, cable channels reaching 76 million and 3.5 million homes, respectively. In the five days before the big event alone they'll air 109 hours of wedding-related shows including "How to Marry a Prince," a user's guide to nabbing a royal fiancé. (Hint: Do not sleep with the prince on the first date.)

"William and Kate are celebrities to Americans. Prince Charles was perceived as a more stodgy kind of guy. But William is hip and cool. She's drop-dead gorgeous, and she's a commoner. It's that princess story we're always seeing in movies," she adds.

Photos: A Royal Engagement

AFP/Getty Images

Prince William and Ms. Middleton on a visit to Northern Ireland March 8.

Princesses? No problem: Disney Channel will dig into its film and TV library to package a marathon to air before the wedding, from Minnie Mouse to Princess Jasmine in "Aladdin." Wedding Central will incorporate into its royal-wedding lineup the existing series "How to Be a Princess," a mix between "America's Next Top Model" and "The Princess Diaries," that sends U.S. women to England for "blue-blood boot camp." They can win cash, a British title and a dance with a European prince.

Ms. Middleton is "this classless underdog who Americans can relate to," says CNN host Piers Morgan, who covered the royal family for years as the editor of Britain's Daily Mirror and will anchor his nightly talk show from London all that week.

She didn't exactly grow up in poverty, but last week, NBC's "Today" aired a segment called "From Pit to Palace: Kate's Coal Mining Ancestry," about Ms. Middleton's ancestors who worked in England's coal country. "We love her humble background," says Executive Producer Jim Bell.

BBC

Look-alikes promoting the documentary 'How to Be a Prince,' reairing on BBC America.

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Royals

In a cramped room in midtown Manhattan, editors put the final touches on royal episodes of TLC's new reality series "What the Sell?!" about three generations of women who run an antique store in Chicago (pitched as "Pawn Stars" meets "The Golden Girls"). Sellers try to hawk a miniature ceramic bust of Princess Diana and a Royal Guard uniform. Another tries to authenticate a pair of Queen Victoria's silk stockings she hopes to sell for $7,000. "People will forge anything, even the Queen of England's underwear," the appraiser tells the camera.

BBC America General Manager Perry Simon was in a taxicab in London when he first heard about the engagement. He immediately made a call to his programming department. The network declared itself "Home of the Royal Wedding."

[Cover_Prince] WE tv

'How to Marry a Prince' on Wedding Central

The strategy includes 184 hours of related documentaries and the new two-part show "Royally Mad," which follows five Angophile Americans on a whirlwind tour of London complete with royal trivia and visits to sites such as the Mahiki lounge, where Prince William and Ms. Middleton (or Wills & Kate, as the tabloids call them) are known to frequent. "Our goal is to make it feel like you're sitting in a British living room," Mr. Simon says.

The event also means built-in branding for dozens of existing wedding reality series like "Bridezillas" and "My Fair Wedding With David Tutera." TLC will peg its new season of "Say Yes to the Dress: Big Bliss," featuring plus-size brides, to the big day. The premiere of spinoff "Randy Knows Best," which follows Randy Fenoli, the colorful fashion director at New York's Kleinfeld Bridal salon, will also be pegged to the wedding. NBC Universal's Oxygen will give the April 6 premiere of Tori Spelling's new wedding reality series "Tori & Dean: sTORIbook Weddings" a boost by offering Ms. Spelling up as an expert in royal wedding commentary.

CNN alone will have a team of roughly 125 reporters, cameramen and crew assigned to the wedding. The network has 50 people on the ground working on the breaking news in Japan, plus others scattered in Bahrain, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Ten cameras will be stationed around Buckingham Palace to capture the day's money shot—the royal family assembling on the balcony as Prince William and his bride share a kiss.

BBC

Anglophiles on BBC America's 'Royally Mad.'

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Royals

The formal nature of the occasion will make TV purveyors ever more vigilant to uncover bloopers destined for Internet infamy. Long before YouTube, cameras at Prince Charles's wedding caught Lady Diana as she stumbled over her vows and called the Prince "Philip Charles Arthur George" instead of Charles Philip Arthur George. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Prince Andrew cracked, "She has married my father."

It's not just 24-hour cable news that's pouring resources into London-based coverage, which will air in the U.S. roughly from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m ET on that day, a Friday. Wedding Central will air the live commercial-free BBC feed and live-stream it online. TLC will also have live coverage. Lifetime will have specials throughout the day designed to grab viewers during lulls in the news coverage.

As the World Watches

Estimated TV audiences for other notable stories

180 million
Popperfoto/Getty Images

1963 John F. Kennedy assassination and funeral; murder of Lee Harvey Oswald

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600 million
Popperfoto/Getty Images

1969 Apollo 11 landing, first moon walk

ROYAL_SIDE
ROYAL_SIDE
750 million
Express/Getty Images

1981 Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana

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ROYAL_SIDE
2 billion
Getty Images

1997 Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales

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ROYAL_SIDE
715 million
Reuters

2006 World Cup final (Italy vs. France)

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ROYAL_SIDE
1 billion
Getty Images

2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing

RoYAL_SIDE
RoYAL_SIDE
1 billion
Getty Images

2010 Chilean miners rescued after being trapped for 69 days

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ROYAL_SIDE

Sources: Nielsen Co.; WSJ research

"Consumers who want a news event can watch a news outlet. We have a strong female audience captivated by the fairy-tale element," says Lifetime President and General Manager Nancy Dubuc.

Syndicated CBS celebrity shows "The Insider" and "Entertainment Tonight" will broadcast across the street from Buckingham Palace. "I've done the Oscars for 16 years and it's always fun, but it doesn't even compare to this," says Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of both shows.

The royals may fascinate people, but they're not unconditionally beloved, and a vocal contingent is already complaining of overload in the U.K., where souvenir barf bags with a picture of the happy couple and Britain's national colors are now on sale. "I'm already tired of the fawning and the emails from every PR company jumping on the RW [royal wedding] gravy train," read an editorial this week in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, a West Yorkshire newspaper. Similar complaints are made yearly about the two-week run-up to the Super Bowl: Last month the game broke a record with 111 million viewers.

Barbara Fisher, head of original movies at Hallmark Channel, initially didn't want to do anything related to the royal wedding, saying the network aims to tell stories viewers can relate to, not sell fantasy. "But Kate brings a sense of normalcy," she says.

Hallmark's movie "William & Kate: A Royal Love Story" will premiere in August, well after its competitor Lifetime airs its fictionalized account "William & Kate." To shoot the Lifetime movie in 20 days and get it ready in time for its April 18 premiere, UCLA served as Scotland's University of St. Andrews, where the couple met. "Fortunately, L.A. was very overcast and rainy when we shot and had sort of an English weather feel," says executive producer Frank Konigsberg. A Munich-based distributor has already sold the rights to Lifetime's "William & Kate" to networks in Italy, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Greece, and others.

Television outlets rented spots on a balcony at the Methodist Central Hall across the street from Westminster Abbey for reporters and camera crews to vie for the first images of Ms. Middleton's dress when she steps out of the car on the way into the 1,000-year-old church, and when the couple exits after the ceremony. Some broadcasters have been paying retainers for the right to rent space there in case of a public event in the Abbey. At least one broadcaster has paid a fee for 10 years for a specific terrace area.

Only the BBC and British commercial broadcasters ITV and Sky will be allowed to film the procession and the service inside the church. U.S. broadcasters must purchase this pooled feed from one of these networks, but at a nominal fee: a spokesman for the BBC says sales of the live wedding covers its expenses but don't make the broadcaster a profit. After 24 or 48 hours (depending on the deal), the BBC can charge more, according to U.S. networks with transactions in the works. The BBC wouldn't talk about specifics.

The wedding is expected to resonate not only in the U.S., but in Commonwealth countries including Australia, South Africa and India. "Today" will have correspondents in New Zealand, Canada and Australia to report on-the-ground reaction. The Teutonic roots of the House of Windsor could mean record viewership in Germany. BBC's coverage will reach Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

On the big day, commentators including Sharon Osbourne from CBS's daytime gabfest "The Talk," and NBC, ABC and CBS news correspondents will be stationed at Canada Gate, a gilded wrought-iron portal into Green Park across the street from Buckingham Palace. There, broadcasters have leased space from the Palace in 16 three-story temporary buildings with glass-fronted studios and viewing stands for individual cameras.

No royal-related detail is too small to attract interest. In the basement of Henry Poole & Co., a venerated tailor shop on London's Savile Row, Keith Levett puts the final stitches on a red and gold livery. He hand-sews a scarlet waistcoat, to be worn by a footman attending the royal couple's carriage, the same way it was made in Queen Victoria's day.

A TLC documentary called "The Making of a Royal Wedding," set to air the night before the nuptials, is there taping a segment, which can be a tedious business. Mr. Levett dutifully states his profession three times for the producers, and four times explains that most coats are sewn by hand—32,500 stitches each, to be exact. They take five to six weeks to make. The master tailor says he doesn't mind: "Any garment that sits on your lap for five weeks requires an enormous amount of patience."

Corrections & Amplifications:

CNN will have a team of about 125 journalists and production staff assigned to cover the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April. Based on erroneous information provided by the cable network, a previous version of this article incorrectly said the number was 400.

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