Election debates: TV genie out of the bottle for usual suspects
MORE than ten million viewers tuned in to watch Britain's first US-style political debates, which analysts now believe are certain to become a regular fixture of future general election campaigns.
The audience was four million higher than is usual for that 90-minute ITV slot, normally occupied by Coronation Street and The Bill. The programme also had more viewers than the other four terrestrial channels combined during the broadcast.
ITV hailed the viewing figures and drew parallels with reality TV contests. Peter Fincham, ITV director of television, channels and online, said: "A close contest in front of a live audience for a big prize that only one person can win makes for terrific television."
One media specialist warned that "the genie had been let out of the bottle" and no election in future could be held without a series of leadership debates.
Robert Beveridge, a lecturer in media policy at Edinburgh Napier University, said the television coverage of elections in the future would now be shaped by Thursday night's events, "There is no going back now," he told The Scotsman. "There will never be another general election without a prime ministerial debate."
But Mr Beveridge warned that the impact of the event might not be positive.
"I don't necessarily think that is a good thing," he added. "For example, Nick Clegg now has a recognition that is perhaps not based on rigorous scrutiny of his policies. In fact, I thought he looked a bit like Ant or Dec last night, and I don't want Ant or Dec to be our prime minister.
"But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. It is a further Americanisation of our politics – turning prime ministers into presidents – and that has constitutional implications."
At its peak, the leaders' debate attracted 10.3 million viewers, or 40 per cent of the audience share. On average, the 90-minute broadcast was watched by 9.4m in the UK, a 37 per cent share of the audience. The closest challenger to the debate's dominance was BBC1's DIY SOS, which could manage only 20 per cent.
In Scotland, STV gained an audience share of 37 per cent at the debate's peak at 9pm, and on average 650,000 viewers tuned in.
One of those who watched was SNP leader Alex Salmond, whose warning that the debate was irrelevant in Scotland made in a party election broadcast earlier in the day appeared to have no effect on STV's audience, which was broadly similar to the rest of the UK.
Adam Boulton, of Sky News, who will host the next leaders' debate on Thursday, said the reaction from the audience had "vindicated" the decision to stage the three events. He noted that many more people would have heard the debate on radio and viewers would have caught up on the broadcast via the internet.
ITV announced that a record 45,000 people had tuned in to its live streaming of the event on the itv.com website.
"To take 90 minutes of high-tension politics into at least half of British homes is vindication enough of the TV debates," said Mr Boulton. "Already Manchester has set the national conversation on policy, personality and the state of the political power struggle.
"Only eight questions were covered, but far from being sluggish, as David Cameron had feared, the three leaders hammered through some top issues on the electorate's mind: immigration, crime, MPs' expenses, education, the deficit, military equipment, health and care for the elderly."
He added: "Their rehearsals paid off. All three men clearly understood the format and used it in their different ways to enhance, rather than hinder, direct communication with the audiences in the studio and across the ether."
As the debate closed on Thursday, the National Grid reported a surge of electricity of 150 megawatts – the equivalent of 60,000 kettles being switched on simultaneously.
The show boasted an audience greater than the 8.35m that watched BNP leader Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time; the 4.26m that tuned into Piers Morgan's interview with Gordon Brown and the 1.7m that saw the Ask the Chancellors debate on Channel 4.
ITV benefited from the audience staying tuned after the debate concluded. The ITV News at Ten was watched by an average of six million people – a 28 per cent share – compared with the BBC news, watched by 4.1 million.
And a record number of people participated in the itv.com live chat function, with 200,000 people logging on.
Mr Fincham said: "This was a moment of broadcasting history – a television first which gripped ITV viewers throughout the entire 90 minutes as the party leaders engaged in lively debate, answering the questions which really matter to the British public.
"Those that thought the format would be stiff and dull couldn't have been more wrong. As we know only too well at ITV, a closely fought contest in front of a live audience for a big prize that only one person can win makes for terrific television."
He added: "We're delighted that so many people tuned in to watch – it is a clear signal that there is a real appetite for the public to see and hear those vying to lead the country debate the big issues.
"Televised election debates are surely here to stay."
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